CHAPEL HILL — Sue Walsh has trained for the Olympics, raised three children and eased tensions among donors to the Rams Club as scandals rocked the UNC-Chapel Hill athletics program.
But she didn’t know what she was getting into when she volunteered to oversee the 50th anniversary celebration at her children’s former school, St. Thomas More Catholic School in Chapel Hill.
Walsh, 51, thought she could easily handle putting on a fancy dinner. Instead, she signed on for a months-long celebration including dozens of events that starts this week, also nationally celebrated as Catholic Schools Week.
Special events at the school this week include birthday cake and a charity walk. An evening reception on Friday will feature Habitat for Humanity International CEO Jonathan Reckford, a St. Thomas More alumnus, as its speaker. An alumni weekend in May will include a golf tournament, and the festivities will end with a community carnival in June.
Overseeing the planning has been demanding – the equivalent of a part-time job for the past year, she says, including late-night text messages and dozens of meetings.
But Walsh, a former champion Tar Heel swimmer who oversees the Rams Club endowment, says she enjoyed working with the team of about 50 volunteers and staff and learning more about a school in whose mission of service she has always believed strongly.
“It’s one of those situations where you think you’re going to be the one contributing, and then you turn around and realize you’ve gotten so much out of it,” she says.
St. Thomas More Principal Michael Ashton says Walsh’s experience as a fundraiser and organizer were crucial to the planning process. And her dedication to the cause of Catholic education, he says, harkens back to the parents who helped found the school.
“She’s just been not only an extraordinary organizer and leader, but she’s always been very dedicated to the real reason the school is here,” Ashton says. “It reminds you of the many people who sacrificed so much for this to even happen, when they were donating every pencil and piece of paper before you could open the doors every fall.”
Two Olympic misses
Walsh grew up in Buffalo, N.Y., one of five children who went to private Catholic schools – a sacrifice in a family that lived on her father’s salary as a public school teacher.
She says her parents cut expenses where they could, such as going camping for family vacations.
“My parents believed in it, and decided to make that commitment,” she says. “You figure out how to make it work if that’s important to you.”
Her father was also a coach, and she was encouraged to choose a sport to pursue. Swimming clicked for her right away, she says.
She started taking summer swim lessons, and by the time she graduated from high school she was on the road to the Olympics.
Unfortunately, the year she qualified was 1980, when the United States boycotted the Summer Games held in the Soviet Union.
By the next Olympics, in 1984, the rules had been changed to allow fewer U.S. swimmers; Walsh got the third-best time in her event, missing the two qualifying spots by one-hundredth of a second.
The twin disappointments were devastating. But Walsh says she doesn’t dwell on them.
“There are some people it impacted deeply,” she says. “But I guess it’s maturity. I can see there are worse things to deal with in life.”
She chose to attend UNC-Chapel Hill from a list of schools offering athletic scholarships. During her years there, she earned eight NCAA national titles and 23 ACC championships.
She majored in business administration with a focus on accounting and worked as an accountant for a time. She also married former Tar Heel quarterback Scott Stankavage, who would go on to play in the National Football League.
Now divorced, the couple had three children; one recently finished his last season at quarterback for Cardinal Gibbons High School in Raleigh and is planning to play in college.
Walsh has worked for 25 years at the Rams Club, the booster club and scholarship organization for UNC-CH. It’s a demanding job that involves both financial savvy and the people skills to work with donors and vendors.
She says the scandals surrounding student athletes at UNC-CH have complicated her job further.
“We’re in some ways spokespeople and intermediaries,” she says. “Alumni aren’t always going to call the chancellor, so we’re the face of the university sometimes.”
A sense of history
St. Thomas More School has its roots at UNC, whose students made up much of the congregation that would go on to be St. Thomas More Church. One of those students, William D. Charmichael Sr., donated four acres of land that became home to a church; his family would go on to donate more land for the school.
The school opened in 1964 with 94 students in kindergarten through third grade taught by Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur. It now educates more than 400 students from age 3 through middle school and counts more than 3,000 alumni.
Walsh’s three children attended the school, her older daughter starting before the school added middle grades in the mid 1990s.
She started helping with events when her children were still there, volunteering to run an auction fundraiser. But the anniversary celebration far exceeds her previous commitments.
Events will start with a special Mass on Sunday. This week at the school, students will enjoy a visit from the bishop of the diocese that encompasses the eastern half of North Carolina. They’ll also be gathering material for a time capsule.
In the coming months, the festivities also include several awards, a talent show, and a fundraiser for scholarships.
“We’re trying our best to celebrate the 50th in every way possible,” she says. “We’re trying to make it so there’s something for everyone.”
In a way, Walsh’s full-time job prepared her for her role heading up the celebration. She deals with fundraising and development, and she regularly deals with vendors and other particulars of staging large events.
But she says her background in athletics is also helpful in leading a large and disparate team.
“I know enough to know who to ask about anything,” she says. “I also know how to cheer them on.”
She says the experience has reinforced her feelings about the school by deepening her understanding of its history and purpose – and the impact it has had on Chapel Hill and beyond.
“It was just sort of an overall good family experience,” she says. “And with the type of alumni the school has produced, we’ve been able to impact not only our own community, but a much wider community.”
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