July 6, 2004

Coming home again

By Eric Rangus


The first time Dawn Francis-Chewning set foot on the Emory campus, she fell in love with it. Her mom noticed it right off.

 "You are never coming back," she told her daughter, then a senior at South Dade High School in Homestead, Fla., just south of Miami.

"When I came here and saw the trees, I went nuts," said Francis-Chewning, who was used to palm and citrus trees, not the towering pines and other deciduous species that mark North Georgia. "My favorite time is winter. I love to see the trees dance against a cold winter sky with a full moon. That's poetry. It's like ballet to me. She was right;
I never went back."

Not never ever, of course. Francis-Chewning, manager of coordinator services in the Network Communications Division, still has family down in Florida, but for most of the last 30 years Emory has been a significant part of her life.

She was a student here, a student worker, a staff employee for a time, a volunteer and member at Glenn Memorial and--following family tragedy--a staff employee once again.

Francis-Chewning was one of the youngest members of her class when she graduated from Emory in 1979 at the age of 20 with a double major in political science and history.

She was just 16 when she entered college in 1975 (born in October, she started kindergarten early as a child in California) and paying her way with scholarships and loans; money was a concern as on-campus jobs for freshman at that time were prohibited. Still, Francis-Chewning was not discouraged.

She lived in Harris Hall, which at the time was all female (all Emory residence halls were single-sex in those days). One of her friends, a senior, worked the front desk as a coordinator. She'd buzz residents when they had visitors and receive flowers, pizzas and other deliveries--essentially acting as the Harris Hall concierge.

Through that friendship Francis-Chewning finagled her way behind the desk for some work. The housing office kept hearing her name and eventually she was given a job. Her sophomore year, Francis-Chewning was head of the desk coordinator group.

"We used to get parent calls at times if someone wouldn't answer her phone," Francis-Chewning said. "I'd tell them, 'She's probably in the library.'"

A likely story, but did she ever cover for one of her residents if they weren't over in Woodruff? "Harris Hall was a big place--it was tough to know everybody--but I never found myself compromised," Francis-Chewning said in her most diplomatic tone.

She was promoted to the women's housing office (now part of residence life) as a senior and stayed on after graduating. In 1981, Francis-Chewning left with lofty goals of working downtown and eventually going to law school.

Then she met Michael Chewning and things changed. She got married, had three children and comfortably moved into the role of stay-at-home mom. "All those things change your path," she said. "In a good way."

She worked part-time as a bookkeeper and devoted the rest of her energies to her family and her church, Glenn Memorial. By any measure, Francis-Chewning was living an ideal life. That life ended in the summer of 1995.

The family was vacationing in Panama City, Fla., when Michael began feeling ill. When they got back to Atlanta, he was in significant pain. He went to the doctor and was diagnosed with cancer. It had not been previously detected, and the disease had spread throughout his body. Just 20 days after the diagnosis, he passed away one week shy of his 41st birthday. Dawn was left to raise their three children (daughter Bailey, then 11; son Haynes, 6; and daughter Abigail, 2) on her own. But she was far from alone.

"When my husband passed away, I was reminded just how incredible a church family can be," Francis-Chewning said. Her part-time bookkeeping job was at Glenn and she had been an active volunteer since her oldest daughter was a toddler. She taught Sunday school, Vacation Bible school and was treasurer for the clothing sale for many years. She even sang in the choir, something she continues to do on occasion.

"Every night dinner would show up on my porch," she continued. "I wouldn't even know what time it was. For a good three months, that was something I just didn't have to worry about. Happy or sad, whatever, Glenn is a family."

Francis-Chewning made it though the rest of the year, and when 1996 rolled around she knew she'd have to get back on her feet and go back to work full-time. Still enamored with working downtown, she applied for a banking job, but she also applied at Emory, which was much closer to her Druid Hills home. Some of her old co-workers in Campus Life had told her of an open position on the technology side.

"It wasn't about the money," Francis-Chewning said. "It was about everything else that lends itself to the kids and me being happy and doing the right thing. So I chose Emory."

She got a job as a customer service representative in what would eventually become Network Communi-cations. Although she had a limited background in information technology, she was looking for a change. "And I thought I had a good enough phone voice," she said. True enough, her voice has a late-night, lite-rock sheen to it. After a year-and-a-half in customer service, she was promoted, eventually rising to manager of coordinator services, her current position.

Francis-Chewning first became interested in technology while working in the housing office as a student. She worked the keypunch machine that helped create data cards. Those now-departed data cards were translated into lists of information, which then were shared with the bursar and registrar, among others. She showed a lot of early potential.

"The keypunch machine was fascinating," Francis-Chewning said of the contraption, basically a typewriter keyboard used to enter data on the cards. "I could type fast enough that it couldn't keep up, but it would remember."

One morning, Francis-Chewning got so far ahead of the machine that she got up and made a cup of coffee while the keypunch clicked away without her. By the time she got back, it still hadn't finished. Her fascinated boss saw the keypunch working automatically and insisted the cards be checked for accuracy. They were perfect.

Late last month NetCom celebrated its fourth anniversary by hosting an open house of its retooled space at the Materiel Center. The coordinators, including Francis-Chewning, moved further back into a wide-open, lofty space once occupied by Surplus Property. They made room for NetCom's billing section, which had been housed in Cox Hall. Now two-thirds of the division's employees are housed under one roof for the first time.

In addition to the new space, NetCom has a major new project: Ramping up the campus to globally acquire wireless technology. "NetCom and ITD are working together on this as a cooperative effort," she said.

The wireless project has been keeping Francis-Chewning busy, as has her volunteering at Glenn, which hasn't subsided even as her children have grown.

Every Wednesday night she serves supper, paying back the generosity she received nine years ago. She is a church league girls' basketball coach and has a hoop charm around her neck (and team picture screensaver) to prove it. And around the Youth and Activities Building (YAAB), Francis-Chewning is known as the "Skating Lady."

From September through May, every Friday night for the past three years, she has chaperoned roller skating on the second floor of the YAAB for fourth-to-sixth graders. "There is loud music, loud roller skates, and I sell just about everything I can at the concession stand," she said. "For two hours, parents can go to Starbucks or out to dinner or wherever.

Francis-Chewning's volunteering is not limited to church. She long has been involved in her children's schools, be they Druid Hills High, Shamrock Middle or Fernbank Elementary, and she shows no sign of slowing down. "My youngest has graduated from elementary school and my son, who will be a 10th grader at Druid Hills, has told me that I need to be the band patron. So, I think he's volunteered me for that," she laughed.