Georgiann Potts

Writer’s Note: Several weeks ago, I was reading yet another article about COVID and the need for “essential workers” to be vaccinated first. That meant that the determination of exactly “who” is “essential” led to more bickering.

As I was reading that piece, I learned that Claudia Evans had passed away. Death had taken “our” Claudia – the wonderful woman who worked tirelessly in ULM’s Office of Public Affairs and mentored more than a few professionals who came under her influence.

My dear friend, colleague, and partner-in-crime — and an “essential worker” to so many — was gone. This column is dedicated to her memory.

Rest in peace, Bear.

— GP

Remembering One Very Special ‘Essential Worker’

I remember my first day on the job as Special Projects Coordinator for ULM’s Office of Public Affairs. I had worked at the university ten years earlier, but I had been a faculty member then. Trust me — the learning curve that comes when one moves from faculty over to the administrative side is steep.

The first person who reached out to help me was Claudia Evans, the secretary who had essentially run that office for years. She had a world of experience and made me feel welcome (and a little less stupid) from that very first day. Over the next several years, I learned the ropes (or most of them) and advanced to become the Director.

One of the first things I did in that position was create an atmosphere of consensus management and name every person in our office — including Claudia — as integral members of our team. We met every Monday morning and coordinated the work for the week ahead. Everyone had a say on each project, and the “cross-pollination” of ideas from different perspectives proved very helpful to all.

Claudia was visibly surprised when I asked her to be a part of the team. When she asked if I really meant for her to be in those meetings, I reminded her that she knew more about that university and the operations of that office than all the rest of us combined. She laughed, got her tablet, and came right in to join. Her knowledge and experience proved invaluable at times. As she often said, “I know where the bones are buried — and I know who buried them!”

Challenges

and Determination . . .

Our team experienced exciting and challenging times — changing the mascot, changing the university’s name, serving during a time marked by an embattled administration — but we still managed to do our jobs while retaining our professionalism (and our senses of humor). Through it all, Claudia helped us to cope. She was, as one of the team dubbed her, the “office goddess”.

When there was a movement nationwide to remove “Indian” mascots, we were caught between the pressure from alumni who didn’t want the Indians — or Chief Brave Spirit — to be changed. These were cherished traditions.

But there was also pressure from beyond the university to remove the perceived insults. And with that pressure came lawsuits attempting to force the university to make the changes. This disturbed everyone, but on at least one occasion was a source of amusement to Claudia. One day she brought in a copy of the latest lawsuit and handed it to me with a smile. “This is getting serious,” she said. “Now YOUR name is on it!”

During a particularly trying time when the administration was under tremendous pressure from those who wanted change, Claudia inadvertently gave herself a new nickname. When she and I were discussing one afternoon the difficulties that we were facing, I was particularly distressed and said I needed some bears to stand between me and all of the “noise”.

Claudia came over, gave me a much-needed hug, and said, “Don’t you worry about any of this. I’ll be your bear.” That meant more to me than she could have imagined. From that moment on, she was “Bear”.

Health Crises . . .

Two health crises arose that taught us all the importance of perseverance. Claudia’s bravery in the face of a breast cancer diagnosis and the subsequent treatments was a study in how we should all act in times of personal crisis. She talked us through every stage of her treatments and was very candid about the ups and downs that she faced during them. Most woman live with some level of fear about breast cancer. Claudia helped us to understand that fear. She became a vocal advocate for breast cancer awareness long after that experience.

The other health crisis was my own, and without a strong team established in Public Affairs, the work of that office might have been adversely impacted. One August Sunday I felt unwell. I called Claudia Monday morning to tell her that I was going to take the day off to get some rest. By midnight that night, I was in intensive care, fighting for my life battling St. Louis encephalitis. My battle was to take months, and ultimately meant that I had to leave a career that I had loved the following year. Through it all, the team functioned efficiently and all Public Affairs work continued. I was enormously proud!

Memories, Pressed

Between the Pages

of my Mind . . .

Elvis Presley recorded “Memories” (written by Billy Strange and Mac Davis) which was released in 1968. That song kept running through my head shortly after I learned of Claudia’s death. I posted a comment on social media to mark my sadness at her passing, and then reached out to the team and others who had worked with her to see what their favorite memories were. It was immediately clear just how special Claudia had been to us all.

Kara Clowers remembered what she called “Claudia Lessons”. Her favorite was that Claudia warned her to always treat the person who writes the checks, changes the lightbulbs, and provides the toilet paper well. “They can wreak great havoc when mad,” Claudia advised.

Richard Lupo remembers a visit he had with Claudia after she began chemotherapy. As they were talking, Claudia said, “Watch this!” Then she reached up to her right temple and pulled on her hair and out came a plug of hair. “That was creepy,” Lupo said, “but that was her sense of humor.” He went on to say that Claudia was just fun to be around and considered us all to be part of her “family”. “She wanted to hear what you had to say,” Lupo said. “And you wanted to hear her funny stories, her wit, her advice, and her ‘It’s all a part of getting older’ medical wisdom.”

Richard Baxter remembered meeting Claudia in 1977 when he was hired just two weeks before the beginning of fall semester. He had to advise students in journalism, though he had no prior experience in higher education. “At the end of that first day, Claudia told me that she liked my personality, but that there had been a lot of turmoil recently. She assured me that there were some really good young people in journalism, but they weren’t sure who they could trust. Then she gave me some advice that has proved invaluable to me. She told me to give them time and treat them fairly and I would win them over,” Baxter said. “She was right.”

Lindsey Wilkerson remembered watching Claudia drive her big maroon Crown Victoria (“her personal tank” he said) into the parking lot. “Claudia was quick with a quip, loved a bawdy joke, adapted to technology, and was an accomplished researcher,” Wilkerson remembered. “Many of ULM’s published stories and history were due to her exhaustive research and the copious number of organized files of clippings and photos which allowed writers to craft ULM’s story.”

Anne Lockhart remembers Claudia as always making her feel special, welcome, and comfortable. “Like a true friend does,” Lockhart added. “And that’s what Claudia was to all with whom she interacted — a true friend.”

Roman lyric poet Horace wrote, “I shall not wholly die, and a great part of me will escape the grave.” Clearly, Claudia will live on in our memories — those of her family, her friends, and the university that she loved.

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