‘Heart and soul’ of South Building honored posthumously

Executive assistant to two chancellors, Massey Award winner Elizabeth Williams made the University run smoothly.

Elizabeth Williams posing for a photo. A tree and the Old Well are seen in the background.
One of Williams' colleague said her positive attitude “made every day a little better and every issue a little smaller.” (Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

As countless Carolina colleagues and students will attest, Elizabeth Williams was for many years the “heart of the University” and “keeper of light and joy” in the chancellor’s office. Her humility, courage, and commitment to excellence were an inspiration, and her sudden passing in November 2023 was a devastating loss to all who knew her.

For her service as the ultimate caretaker of the University and its leaders, and for being an exceptional leader, mentor and friend whose grace and warmth consistently inspired others, Elizabeth Williams posthumously received a 2024 C. Knox Massey Distinguished Service Award.

Williams graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Carolina with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics. After a career in banking, she returned to campus to work in the office of undergraduate admissions for the Morehead-Cain Foundation before transitioning to serve as executive assistant to Chancellors Emeriti Carol L. Folt and Kevin M. Guskiewicz.

During her term, Folt referred to Williams as the “heart and soul” of South Building, and Guskiewicz felt the same way. “She was incredible at developing processes for our entire office workflow, which could change quickly given the unique issues any day could bring,” he wrote in nominating Williams for the award, along with his former chiefs of staff. “She was the epitome of excellence, while also showing our campus community what it means to be a servant leader. Simply put, Elizabeth was the most selfless person we’ve ever known.”

“It is not uncommon to hear the phrase ‘work family’ when people talk about their coworkers and colleagues,” said Amy Locklear Hertel, executive vice provost and former chief of staff in the chancellor’s office. “For me, Elizabeth Williams was more than that. She was my ‘family at work.’ She cared about me as more than just a colleague. She cared about my family, my happiness and my challenges. In fact, she cared that deeply for everyone she worked with. She was gifted with empathy, kindness, generosity, integrity and joy.”

“Elizabeth was the kindest, most generous person I have ever known,” said Christi Hurt, chief of staff in the chancellor’s office. “Everyone mattered to her. She treated every student with the same grace and dignity she would use to greet a VIP. She was our cheerleader, our friend, our confidant and our mentor. We all miss her very much.”

Many of Williams’ nominators praised her skillful dedication to ensuring operations in the chancellor’s office and across the University ran smoothly. “She was always happy to run off and take care of something for someone if it would make their day just a bit easier,” said a colleague. “She was great at anticipating needs — from travel arrangements, to meeting breaks, to lunches —and had an eye on what everyone in the office needed to be successful and happy.”

“She could identify a solution to the most challenging of issues in the office and could always make things work,” said another colleague. “Her positive attitude made every day a little better and every issue a little smaller.”

“When I was stuck in an airport or trying to figure out the answer to a scheduling issue, Elizabeth was the first person I called,” said Guskiewicz. “Even the most ridiculous or random requests — she handled them with optimism and good humor.

Many colleagues and friends praised Williams’ qualities as a leader, mentor and friend of exceptional warmth and kindness who consistently inspired others. “I believe Elizabeth always thought about other people before she considered herself,” wrote a nominator. “She will always be my best example of how to live this life: to do what is right to other people, love being kind to others and live humbly.”