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Karen Salisbury: Serving Emory with heart and humor

Karen Salisbury has served Emory for three decades, from Campus Life to Campus Services to the 1996 Summer Olympic Games, even meeting her husband here. As she prepares to retire, she reflects on work she’s loved. Photo courtesy of Salisbury.

Wherever Karen Salisbury goes across the Emory campus, be it a boiler room or a boardroom, chances are that she’ll encounter a familiar face.

As chief of staff and director of customer relations and support for Campus Services, Salisbury simply knows Emory — its people, its facilities and the very machinery that makes the university hum.

And more pointedly, Emory knows her, as a colleague, mentor and impassioned problem solver.

If you’ve ever reported a facilities or maintenance problem, Salisbury is the person who oversees the Work Management Center that dispatches real-time solutions, among 70,000 such requests fielded on campus every year.

After a career at Emory that has spanned 32 years of service — including a high-profile stint coordinating Olympic visitor accommodations and activities on campus during the 1996 games — forging friendships and connections across campus has become a fringe benefit of her work.

This week, those Emory faces she’s come to know so well will gather to celebrate Salisbury’s service as she prepares to tackle yet another adventure: retirement.

Emory Report caught up with Salisbury recently to reflect on the many chapters of her Emory career and what has kept her working here for three decades.

Where does your story begin?

I’m from Minnesota. I grew up in Bloomington and went on to attend the University of Minnesota Duluth. The year that I graduated from high school my family moved to Chicago, but I didn’t go. I’m the only person I know whose family moved out on them. (laughs)

What were your early academic interests?

I attended college for two quarters, quit, went back again for two quarters, quit, and then went back eight years later to serve as a student activities secretary, taking classes because they were free and fun. When someone pointed out to me that I was three classes shy of an associate’s degree, I realized that I wanted a career, not just a job.

I went on to the Minneapolis campus and earned a degree in communications and radio production. From there, I went to Central Connecticut State University in New Britain to pursue a master’s degree in counseling with a focus on student development and higher education.

How did you arrive at Emory?

I was offered a job as program adviser in student activities, where you begin to see the opportunity that students have to grow. Today some of my dearest friends are former Emory students — now in their 40s and even 50s — who’ve become these remarkable people. Not only do you see that progression, you get to help them get there. That’s what I love about higher education.

What did you do in that role?

I worked with the Student Programming Council and student organizations — I consider it a badge of honor that I’ve attended 22 Dooley’s Balls as a chaperone. The work also helped me build relationships with other campus employees. When we held events on McDonough Field, I would need to know who was handling the staging, the recycling and waste, who was the electrician. Those were the people behind the scenes who were making things happen. I’ve always loved knowing the people making it happen.

How did you become involved with the 1996 Summer Olympic Games?

After about a year, I became the director of university conferences, which gave me a bigger picture of Emory. In 1988 we brought the Georgia Special Olympics to campus, where it’s been held ever since. Right out of that, we began helping the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games in their bid to bring the 1996 summer games to Atlanta.

Early on, we began planning accommodations for housing Olympic visitors on campus. The Woodruff P.E. Center was used as a training site for Olympic athletes, Cox Hall was a press center for international media, and Olympic competition officials, journalists and even some athletes were being housed in Emory residence halls. We were the largest non-competition venue of the summer games.

What memories stand out for you around that time?

Before Atlanta had been chosen as the Olympic site, the U.S. Olympic Committee was coming for a campus visit, arriving via helicopter on the varsity playing fields. The day they were due, I was part of a group of people who were all dressed up and standing outside to greet them. Suddenly, we heard two helicopters descending. As they started to land, all of this dead grass flies up into the air and sticks to everything, including our lips. We were laughing and picking grass off everything. But it was actually the best thing in the world to happen in a stressful moment, because it broke the tension. And in the end, Atlanta got the Olympic bid.

Of course, the big secret was that the women’s U.S. gymnastics team — the Magnificent Seven — was staying in what was then the Chi Phi fraternity house. We had scheduled a reception for them at the Carlos Museum, and through Special Olympics I was able to invite the DeKalb County Special Olympics gymnastics team, probably about eight girls, to meet those gold-medal winning Olympians. To see their faces, it was just incredible. To me, those are the moments that mattered.

How did you come to work for Campus Services?

Following the Olympics, I served as assistant dean for Campus Life and director of student activities. After 10 years I was ready for a change. I heard a special assistant’s job was being created in Campus Services and said, “That fits me.” As part of the application process, we had to write a funding letter. I submitted one, but there was a problem with the computer I was using and I asked (then vice president for Campus Services) Bob Hascall if I could take another stab at it. After I submitted it for the second time, I realized that I had spelled his name wrong! I said, “Bob, I have no excuses, but what this tells you about me is that you can count on me to own my mistakes!” In the end, he hired me.

I understand that you met your husband here at Emory.

Yes, Roger Palys. He’s a certified master locksmith who was working in the lock shop (Emory lock services) when I was in conferences. Every year he would teach my staff about locks and what to do when keys get stuck. We’ve been together 26 years.

Your Emory career has had distinct chapters. What kept you here?

They were all so different, but built off of each other, and that’s what’s been so gratifying. For 30 years, I was able to contribute in uniquely different ways. I’ve just enjoyed working with so many different kinds of people, from grounds workers and custodians to architects and engineers, mechanics and public safety folks and all the parking people. With about 800 employees, Campus Services is one of the largest divisions at Emory, and I like to think that through (vice president for Campus Services) Matthew Early’s leadership and vision, we help make the space where learning can take place.

To me, what makes Emory so unique is that we try to do the right thing. I’ve been so proud to be a part of that kind of team. That’s been the staying power for me.

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