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Students First

At about the time in late April I was sitting down to interview Tom Stafford about his coming retirement, the first of four candidates seeking to succeed him as the head of student affairs was fielding questions from faculty, staff and students in an open forum at the D.H. Hill Library. While it’s true that Stafford’s replacement will have some pretty big shoes to fill, it won’t be the first time that’s happened at NC State.

Stafford faced a similar challenge nearly 30 years ago when he took over for Banks Talley, the man responsible for creating many of the student programs and facilities taken for granted today, including the Talley Student Center, named in his honor.

“Banks left me a note offering to help when needed but urging me to chart my own course,” Stafford recalls.

It was a gracious gesture from a skilled administrator to a younger man, then barely 40, who brought energy, ideas and common sense –- if not decades of experience -– to the job. The relationship between the two men has endured. Talley is still active on campus, especially in the arts programs, and Stafford reveres him as a mentor.

He hopes to follow Talley’s lead and remain active at NC State well into retirement. Perhaps, he muses, he could do some fundraising for the institution.

“You know a few people,” I venture.

“I know a LOT of people,” he replies.

Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Tom Stafford in the late 1970s.

Mementos and Memories

As he prepares for retirement after more than four decades at NC State, Stafford finds that more than a few of those people want to shake his hand. Every time he attends a meeting these days he’s presented with a plaque or a framed photograph or a trophy of some sort. Cluttering his desk and spilling onto the floor in front of it are dozens of such mementos, including a photo from the ROTC, a piggy bank from University Theatre and a large bronze statue of a Minuteman from the North Carolina National Guard (presented recently by two generals).

“Where am I going to put all this stuff?” he wonders, scanning the room.

Still, thinking back over the years since 1964, when he and his wife Judy arrived on campus for his graduate studies, Stafford quickly realizes he’s accumulated more memories than stuff at NC State. Asked to prepare a few remarks for his retirement party last month, Stafford sat down with a pad and pen and began sketching out some of his favorite stories. After listing 50, he realized it was a lost cause.

“I won’t have time to get through half,” he told Judy.

“Don’t tell the whole story,” she suggested. “Just tell what it was about.”

The same could be said for this story. How do you sum up the accomplishments of a man who influenced the lives of tens of thousands of students over 41 years, who spearheaded efforts encompassing the arts, housing, recreation, health, dining, service-learning, the ROTC, multicultural programs and more?

Stafford shows NC State supporters the Shrine Room during a tour of the Memorial Belltower.

Proud Leadership on Diversity

Even Stafford admits it’s a challenge.

“I look back and I can’t believe I’ve been here so long,” he says.

But he does offer some thoughts on his career, hitting just the high points. First and foremost, he’s proud of his leadership in promoting diversity.

“When I got here, NC State was pretty much a college for white men,” he says.

Then his voice turns steely, taking on a tone he likely learned during a tour of duty in the Army in the late 1960s.

“I expect everybody on our team to always look for ways to create an environment that welcomes and supports every student who comes here, regardless of race, gender, religion, sexual orientation or disability,” he says. “That’s a top-down message.”

The other message he’s promoted over his career is the motto he established for student affairs from his first day on the job: Students First. The saying –- probably the shortest mission statement ever created by an academic -– gives as much insight into Stafford as his curriculum vitae, or this article.

In fact, during a year when the university celebrates its 125th anniversary by recalling its history of transformational change, it’s safe to say that Stafford has been one of the main forces behind those changes, and always for the benefit of students.

Ironically, one of the few things not transformed on campus since Stafford took the helm of student affairs in 1983 is the man himself.

“I’m not the kind of guy that’s going to go down to the beach and lay out in the sun every day,” he says. “Starting January first, if anybody wants me to come back and do some work on a part-time basis, just let me know.”