8 Questions with Sterly Wilder After a 40-Year Duke Career
Ahead of her last day in May as a Duke staff member, Wilder shares her favorite moments and more
Among the milestones, Wilder worked closely with late Trustee Emerita Janet Hill to build outreach efforts to Black alumni, as well as international and Hispanic and Asian alumni. She served as a pre-major advisor for students for 36 years, shepherding hundreds of students, including Grant Hill, who played for Duke from 1990-1994 and was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.
In 2004, Wilder became the first woman to lead Duke’s alumni office when she succeeded Laney Funderburk. And after decades of dedication, her name has become synonymous with Duke.
With 61 years of campus moments, Wilder talked with Working@Duke about her career on campus.
Tell us about your favorite places on campus?
When I was a student, I loved being on the bench in front of my dorm right on Main Quad (then called Cleland Dorm on West Campus). I lived on Main Quad, but of course, I’ve loved going to the gardens and Duke Chapel too.
The gardens and the Chapel were always a great spot because I grew up in Durham. There are so many memories there. I’ve always loved the gardens, and I’ve loved seeing the evolution over the years. I think Bill LeFevre and his team have done an amazing job. There’s a bench there that’s named in honor and memory of my parents that I love because you can see the whole great lawn down from that perch, all the way down to the pond.
The Chapel was always an important spot to my family and when I think of Main Quad, it makes me think about my time as a student and how impactful that was for me and my life, my work, and my friends. That helped create and shape who I am.
What are some of your most meaningful moments as a staff member at Duke?
One is the dedication of the Karsh Alumni and Visitors Center. So many people worked so hard to make it a reality and a home for alumni on campus. For years, we had dreamed and hoped for an alumni center to connect our alumni and students, to house the alumni staff and to be a signature gathering place at the University. Before he stepped down in 2004, my predecessor, Laney Funderburk, had worked on this vision as well. So, after 20-plus years of staff and volunteers having this vision, it came to fruition. And, it was beyond our wildest expectations once it opened. We haven’t even begun to see the number of ways this facility can be used and how much it will become such a critical and wonderful part of the fabric of Duke.
I also think about when we added the names of people who had been lost or killed in action since World War II to the Memorial Quad between the Chapel and the Divinity School in 2009. Our program was really meaningful for them, but for so many people who came and attended and worked on it, and it was really a labor of love.
My father was a professor here, but he was also really involved in Navy ROTC for a long time. He was a World War II veteran himself, so I think that probably has a lot to do with why it’s special. I also knew alums who’d had fathers or siblings who were killed in Vietnam and young alums who were killed in Iraq.
Name a memorable person you’ve met while working at Duke.
I've just been really lucky to meet a lot of incredible people, including presidents. One of the most fun alumni events that we ever had was in 2012 when we had President Jimmy Carter's grandson, Jason, who's a Duke alum, interview his grandfather at an event at the Carter Center.
It was unbelievable, and I had to introduce President Carter. I was so nervous and from where he was sitting in the audience, he's like, ‘Don't be nervous! You’ve got this.’ That was a big ‘wow’ moment. He was so humble and down to earth, and he was that way when he would come to campus to see his grandson.
What do you love most about Duke?
It’s the people who make it special. The plants are beautiful, and the campus is so physically beautiful, and you can’t ignore that. But it’s the people and the spirit. It’s students, alumni, faculty and staff, people I’ve worked with on campus. Everybody.
Even though it’s gotten so big, it’s a lot like a family in so many ways with familiarity and a closeness. People care deeply about other people here.
Share a fun fact about you.
I’ve never left Durham for very long. The longest I’ve ever been away from Durham was four weeks when I went to summer camp in Sapphire Valley (North Carolina) in the 1970s.
If you could have lunch with one colleague – past or present – who would it be, and where would you go?
It would probably be President Terry Sanford, and I would take him to the Brodhead Center. When I was a student working for him from 1982 to 1983, I learned so much. He was so gifted at relationships, and he was smart. He knew how to work a room and how to make people feel good, and make them feel like they were important, which was great for working with alums, fundraising and engagement. I watched all he did for people, the unsung heroes, and he really transformed people’s lives.
I think he would love to see what Duke looks like today. He’d be really proud.
What will you miss about working at Duke?
I’m going to miss the people. I work with some amazing colleagues, which I will stay in contact with. I love having people come back to campus and seeing them, and I love going out into the regions and meeting people and getting them engaged with Duke. I’m going to miss that hustle and bustle.
I’ll still have my basketball and football tickets, so I won’t miss those. I’ve never not worked, so I don’t even know what to expect to miss, but I’ve worked really hard for a long time, and I’ve loved every minute of it.
It’s going to be weird when school starts back up in the fall because we have a picnic for the children of alums, and I’ve been to that every year for the last 30-something years. I’ll miss all those sorts of traditions that you always do, but it’s great and time for others to do them now.
What’s next for you?
Forty years is a long time, and I'm excited. A little nervous, but it’ll be good. I don’t know all 190,000 alumni, but I am very lucky to have a lot of amazing relationships that I'll have for the rest of my life and those won't change.
I don’t know what the future holds, but I’ve had a great run, and I’ve been so lucky. I just want to see what’s next. I started playing golf more in the pandemic, so I'm looking forward to that and having time to read and spend quality time with friends and family.