Making connections on campus

Coon specializes in bringing people together

Mary Coon wants to meet you. Yes, you. Even you in the back, the slouching introvert with your hat pulled over your eyes. Especially you.

She wants to sign you up for the choir or to bake a batch of cookies for a group of off-campus students. She wants you to bowl a few frames at Fox’s Alley or have a “no stranger” lunch with a psychology professor or assistant football coach or (preferably) both.

She wants to learn your chili recipe (if you’ll reveal it) and share one of her favorites with you. She wants you to write a haiku and then read it at a meeting of the Bulldoggerel Society (a group she made up on a whim).

Basically, Mary Coon wants you to get out of your windowless closet of an office and get some fresh air. And – this is the important part – get to know some people.

Coon is the administrative assistant in the Department of Chemistry and Physics, and she couldn’t be better suited for that role. She’s an extrovert’s extrovert in a department full of brainy introverts. She loves nothing better than connecting like minds that probably didn’t think they were like minds.

Coon is something of a platonic matchmaker. She has an “insatiable drive to bring our campus community together out of want rather than obligation,” says Brittany Peper, director of annual giving communications and operations. She does this by persistently pulling at common threads and knitting them into a social patchwork quilt.

Coon started “no stranger” lunches in order to get people in her department to interact with those from other areas of campus. She worries that, as the University expands, self-segregation will just become worse. Being inserted into social situations with people from other disciplines, she believes, can produce the intangible results that make a university so much greater than the sum of its parts.

“When we are so rigidly stuck to our agenda, we miss all the creativity that happens in the margins,” Coon says. “And that’s what shared coffee time or bowling or getting people together for lunch, that’s what that allows us to do.”

Coon’s admin role is part-time, so this year she started filling the rest of her workday in the Office of Advancement, where her primary role is bringing scholarship recipients face-to-face with donors – which is really just an extension of her informal duties as University greeter, facilitator and social fulcrum. She understands that students might at first be reluctant to meet donors, but she feels those face-to-face interactions are important.

“I think it’s intimidating for students,” she says, “but once they realize how meaningful it is for people who are giving their resources to help and support what they love about the institution, how important it is for them to see a face that goes with that, hear a voice, hear a story, I think that makes it easier for the student and more encouraging for the donor.”

It’s not easy for some people – maybe most people – to venture out of their comfort zone. Coon’s comfort zone is the space most people try to avoid, but although she’s an acknowledged extrovert, she understands the reluctance to put yourself out there. When she started “no stranger” lunches, one employee resignedly asked, “When do I have to go?” Coon gets it. It ain’t easy. But she feels that “cross-pollination” makes for a stronger University and community.

“Here’s news: We’re all entitled to a lunch break, and you ought to take it,” she says. “It’s a good way to talk about different things and have informal community, in a way that’s not a meeting with an ‘agenda.’

“They did all survive it, and it’s led to some really nice interactions and collaborations.”

Connecting eras

Coon’s father taught accounting at Western Michigan University, and she grew up in a neighborhood full of kids of college professors. Then she got an undergraduate degree (in English lit, from Miami University in Ohio) and a graduate degree (in popular culture studies, from Bowling Green), met and married Jim Coon and became a professor’s wife.

“I have never really known anything except the rhythm of an academic lifestyle,” Coon says. “I think of my whole life as broken up into semesters, and that’s just always been part of it.”

Jim is in his 26th year as a Wingate communications professor, and Mary has been employed at the University for 16 of those years, with a couple of years off and a six-year stint at Wingate Elementary in between jobs at the University. When the Coons came to Wingate to interview, Jim was offered and accepted the job before they left the University grounds. Gladys Kerr, a math professor at the time, threw her arms around his neck and said, “Oh, honey. I’m so glad you accepted.”

“Jim said, ‘I knew right then that I’d made the right decision,’” Mary says.

It was Mary’s kind of place too. She was hired soon after and worked as the administrative assistant to the dean of the Cannon College of Arts and Sciences for 11 years. Many of the professors in that department, including Dr. Jerry Surratt, who hired her, are now considered “faculty emeriti.” To qualify, they have to be retired from the University and have taught at Wingate for at least 20 years.

Martha Asti, Wingate’s scholar-in-residence and formerly vice president for academic affairs and a music professor, started the program a couple of years ago to more firmly connect faculty emeriti with the University. Coon thought it was right up her alley, so she volunteered to help. “The people in the emeritus faculty program are the people that made Wingate Wingate for me when I first got here,” she says.

The meetings are informal – luncheons, or get-togethers at basketball games and concerts. Last month, Coon organized the “Heart of Wingate” luncheon for the emeriti group and members of the Order of the Seal (employees who have worked 30 or more years at Wingate). She also campaigned to get spouses of deceased faculty emeriti added to the group. It’s all part of strengthening the bonds that Coon feels make Wingate University what it is.

“They are the institutional memory,” she says. “They have seen changes come and go. And there’s something very calming about being with them, because as worked up as we get about different situations or changes or things that go on, and it seems all crazy at times, you talk to the emeritus faculty members and they go, ‘Oh yeah. We'll get through this.’ I love having their perspective, and I think it’s critical that we keep them engaged with the school they helped form.”

Coon connects eras as well as people.

“She has been here long enough to know who and what has come before – and she values what we have been as an institution and where we will go,” says Karen Elizabeth Smith, associate registrar and Coon’s regular bowling partner. “She was not assigned to emeriti faculty – she chose that role because she has a true love and passion for the folks whose time in the classroom may be done but who are still a vital part of the Wingate community.”

Ally for the marginalized

About a year ago, Coon was asked to help coordinate a campus visit for several hundred fourth-graders from Union County Public Schools. She had barely a week to fill a morning’s worth of activities. She held a pep rally, tapping her mental Rolodex to find staffers who could serve as cheerleaders welcoming the students to Austin Auditorium and to draft others to speak. 

Coon has assembled the community choir for Baccalaureate and organized the Chili Cook-off for Homecoming. She bakes goodies for everyone in her department on their birthdays. (Food is a big component of her networking efforts, which is apt for someone who studied “the folklore of baking” in graduate school.)

None of this is in the job description for either of her roles, but it does seem to be her calling.

“Mary values community and connection, and that is central to much of what she does on campus,” Smith says. “She invests herself in the community around her, and she connects people within the community, to make it a brighter, richer place than it was before she sparkled through.”

When an unusually wet spring delayed the construction of a new residence hall last year, Coon arranged to have various employees bake cookies and deliver them to students housed in a hotel in Monroe for part of the fall semester. And the cookies had to be homemade. None of this Pillsbury slice-and-bake business.

“It’s something that ties into grandparents and just good warm memories,” Coon says. “And I knew that the students who were in the hotels were probably starting to feel a little bit like they’d been forgotten.”

Smith calls her friend “an ally for those who feel lost or misunderstood on campus.” But Coon is an ally for just about everybody else, too. If she knows a chemistry major who competes on the swim team, she’ll show up to watch a meet. Being a member of the Women’s Choir, she tends to know a lot of students in the music department. She goes to their recitals. As often as she can, she goes to hear speakers on campus who represent marginalized communities.

And she sits in the front row. In fact, Coon lives her life in the front row – not for the attention but to absorb some of the energy in the room, so that the less socially inclined can slip in and enjoy the scene too, without the pressure that attention brings.

Coon specializes in small-group scenarios: drop-in poetry readings, coffees, lunches and bowling outings. She enjoys her work but knows that good health, both physical and mental, requires water-cooler talk as much as shop talk.

“I want to be able to enjoy what I’m doing when I’m doing it and enjoy the people I work with, because that’s all there is,” Coon says. “We’ve had sadly a number of faculty members who’ve worked to the point where they died at their desks. I admire their dedication, but I don’t intend to go that way.”

Instead, she’ll “sparkle through” on her own terms, serving others in the informal ways that make Wingate University a special place.