VCU staff member proudly dedicates over 40 years to the university community

By Malorie Burkett
May 6, 2024

Fifty years ago, Mary Tucker stepped on the Virginia Commonwealth University campus to study art education. In May, she steps away from a professional role on campus – and an education and career that spanned nearly all those years.

Mary TuckerShe takes with her the treasured memories of countless students who graduated from the Department of Rehabilitation Counseling.

“I've loved our relationship with the students,” said Tucker, who is retiring as the department’s long-time administrative assistant. “In fact, if there's anything that I feel good about in my 44 years, it is all the people that we have trained to go out and work with others. I feel very good about that.”

With a role that has had her working on both campuses and through organizational changes that have brought the department into what is now the College of Health Professions, Tucker talks excitedly about the students who walked through those same doors she once did. Those relationships don’t end once students turn into alums.

“We stay in touch with people, and a lot of our graduates stay in touch with us. They'll call us, send us pictures of their kids or let us know what they're doing and where they're working,” she said. “It's a very people-oriented job, and I feel like we've made a difference in the students’ lives. Then they go out and make a difference in other people's lives. I think that's so cool.”

Tucker is considered a guiding light for the department, as she’s embraced applicants, students and graduates, shepherding them into and through the program, while supporting faculty in doing their best work and research.

“Mary is the epitome of integrity. She lives her values of social justice, equity and inclusion. She has high standards and continuously contributed to the excellence of our program. She is kind, humorous, insightful and courageous,” said Amy Armstrong, Ph.D., associate dean of faculty affairs in the College of Health Professions and associate professor of rehabilitation counseling. “I’m grateful that I was able to work and learn from Mary. She made me a better person. There is no one like Mary Tucker, except Mary Tucker. And we are all better for having known her.”

Studying to work in the arts

Growing up in New York, Tucker attended Hicksville High School along with two other early 1970s alums who earned the spotlight in arts: Grammy Award-winning singer/songwriter Billy Joel and Lorraine Bracco, known for acclaimed roles in The Sopranos and Goodfellas.

After her father died in 1974, Tucker and her mother wanted to move back to her mother’s hometown, Richmond. That fall, Tucker arrived to VCU as an art education student, graduating in 1978 with her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree. 

During the summer of 1978, Tucker decided to look for a secretarial job because she could type 90 words per minute. She said she could not get hired as a secretary because hiring managers thought she would leave when a teaching position became available.
Tucker was hired by Part-Time Inc. as a temp, and her first job was at the Virginia Community College Systems office downtown. She went on to fill other positions in need of a temp as each job ended. In October, Tucker was sent to VCU Rehabilitation Counseling.  

“VCU wanted to hire me, but I had to complete a contract with Part Time Inc.,” said Tucker. “So, I worked in the department through Part Time Inc. until March of 1979 when my contract ended.”
Tucker was an hourly employee in the Department of Rehabilitation Counseling from March 1979 through July 1, 1980 when she got her first classified position. When the department chair’s secretary left unexpectedly, Tucker applied for her job and got it. This is the same position Tucker has held for 44 years, although the duties have changed over the years.

“I walked in the front door, and I loved it. I loved the department, and the faculty I was working with,” Tucker said. “I just loved everything about it, and the work. I decided I wanted to stay.”

Growing along with the department

At the time, the Department of Rehabilitation Counseling was part of the School of Community Service. Tucker’s first office was on West Franklin Street, and she moved a block west a few years later. 

When the school was disbanded in 1994, all departments were transferred to other schools across VCU. Tucker’s department became part of what was known then as the School of Allied Health Professions.

Because the School of Allied Health Professions had no office space for Rehabilitation Counseling in 1994, they stayed at their West Franklin location until space was available. Tucker recalls regular trips to the MCV Campus to collect the paychecks for her department. 

“There was no direct deposit, so we trekked over there every two weeks to pick up our paychecks,” she said. “We went to West Hospital, because that’s where the Dean’s Office was.” 

The dean was Thomas Barker, the inaugural leader of Allied Health Professions, and Tucker worked briefly with him before his retirement. Cecil Drain, Ph.D., was appointed as the next dean.

“Dr. Drain was a really good dean. I thought a lot of him, and I respected him,” Tucker said. “And really, we are in this building now because of his vision and because of his determination that we were all going to be in one building.”

In summer 1995, Tucker and her colleagues finally relocated to the MCV Campus and were housed in the former Ambulatory Care building, now no longer in existence. After a year, they moved to McGuire Hall, their home until transferring in 2007 to Theater Row until the opening of the College of Health Professions building in 2019.

“We were very glad to be part of this school, and to be able to remain a sovereign department and not be combined with any other departments. That was a very important thing,” Tucker said. “Being part of the medical campus was good for us professionally, as was working with Dean Drain.”

Tucker recalls one of the most meaningful gifts to the department - a plaque from a student with the inscription “The true meaning of life is to plant trees under whose shade you do not expect to sit.” The student believed the quote reflected what the department did as a program: She believed they planted trees for others to have a place to sit.

Honoring a living legacy

Tucker describes her colleagues as some of the best human beings she has ever known. “Basically, this was the best place I could ever have hoped to work,” she said. “They are some of my best friends, and I could not have asked for better people.”

A two-time cancer survivor, Tucker credits her work family for supporting her personally and professionally during those times. The respect and admiration go both ways.

"Mary exemplifies that rare combination of competence and caring that makes such a difference to so many students, faculty and staff members in our department,” said Chris Reid, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Rehabilitation Counseling. “Even better, she finds real meaning in her work and takes pride in making the world a better place through helping all of us. Through her years here, she figured out how to proactively prevent problems and to know who to contact to resolve things when even her diligence couldn't prevent what was to come. Most of all, she is a valued friend."

To honor Tucker and her deep service, the department created the Mary N. Tucker Award, which will go to a student who demonstrates resilience, hard work and service to others. The award includes scholarship funds, and contributions can be made here

“For 44 years, Mary has been an integral and essential part of all of our department’s successes and challenges, changes and course corrections, and all of the happy and sad times. Mary has been a central part of our community that has enabled us to not only survive all of those events, but to continually grow and benefit from them. She has been a constant through the years,” said Jared Schultz, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Rehabilitation Counseling. “She will be sorely missed by students, faculty, staff and all of our colleagues and friends. We wish her well on her next adventures and are a bit jealous of those who will embark on those journeys with her.”

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