Emory Report
April 11, 2005
Volume 58, Number 26


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April 11, 2005
Lackey of involvement

BY Eric Rangus

If anyone could be called a Little Ball of Energy, it would be Susie Lackey. Barely five feet tall, Lackey makes up for her lack of height with intensity of effort. Every inch of the Employee Council president is on the go, foot to the floor, all the time.

Sitting in traffic, her mind races even when her car isn’t. She keeps scratch paper within arm’s reach of the steering wheel. As inspirational thoughts float into her head, she writes them down. Lackey does this at work, too. Her desk in the endocrine lab at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center—while exceptionally neat and organized—also is notable for the many scattered scraps of paper (notebooks, notepads, envelopes) covered in Lackey’s scrawled thoughts pointing every which way.

Lackey is a passionate person and nowhere is that more apparent than her approach to her career. “I enjoy this job today as much as I did when I came here 23 years ago,” said Lackey, research specialist supervisor in Yerkes’ Endocrine Core Lab.

Lackey’s association with Emory actually began in 1976 (two years after earning a bachelor’s degree in animal science from the University of Georgia), when she took a job as a research technician in biochemistry doing leukemia research. When that grant ran out in 1977, she moved to an endocrinology lab at the Grady campus until she left in 1980 to have children, a boy and a girl. In 1982 Lackey returned to the Emory fold at Yerkes.

The three-person endocrine lab provides immuno-assay determinations (measures of hormones and other biologically active compounds) for a variety of biological fluids from humans and nonhuman primates. In short, Lackey works with thousands of test tubes filled with blood, saliva and urine, which is about as far as the work goes on the cringe scale (compounds such as semen and stool are generally not tested).

It’s a nonprofit lab; researchers are charged as little as $5 for tests (which are limited to research investigation; the lab does no clinical testing). The lab’s work forms the backbone of research ranging from cardiovascular disease to osteoporosis, and about 60 percent of the lab’s revenue comes from outside Emory.

The job is perfect for Lackey, she said, because it’s tucked away in Yerkes’ back halls, away from a lot of noise. She can don her lab coat and go about her business without a lot of interruption or attention—sort of the antithesis of her Employee Council work—striking a perfect balance.

“There is so much I would love to say, but I just don’t like being in the spotlight,” Lackey said. “I like to do good work in the background. My daughter loves the stage; I like to pull the curtains.”

Pulling the curtains, though, is tough to do when you are the voice to the administration for some 19,000 staff employees, as Lackey has been since taking over as council president late last summer. She first served on Employee Council in the early 1980s when Jim Laney was president. After her term was up, she returned to Yerkes, content with her relatively uneventful term and the fact that she’d had the opportunity to contribute in
a small way to University governance.

In 2000, she was moved to return. This time she had an agenda; Lackey wanted to explore Emory’s sick-leave policy. The policy is generous; that wasn’t the issue. Staff accrue hours every month they are employed and there is no cap. Still, if a staff employee struggles through a long illness, he or she could run out of sick time and therefore would have to take leave without pay.

Lackey’s idea was to create a policy whereby staff could voluntarily donate their sick leave, either directly to another person or to a sick leave “bank” from which needy staff could draw, if necessary. It’s a policy available to her husband (he works for the Fulton County School System), and it’s also in effect at a variety of institutions, including some of Emory’s peers.

“Although it’s a no-cost benefit, the council told me at the time it was a losing cause,” said Lackey, adding that the idea of sick-leave donation had been explored previously, to no avail. “I was virtually a lone warrior.”
When she pitched the idea to Human Resources, Lackey was rebuffed. After her report to the council, the between-the-lines response was, “We told you so.” Still, she didn’t give up, although it took her nearly five years to revisit the issue.

Now, as Employee Council president, Lackey is a member of the University Senate’s ad hoc Benefits Review Committee. In the course of its meetings, Lackey raised the sick-leave donation idea once again. This time, she made some headway. Sick-leave donation remains on the table, and Lackey said she is hopeful it may come to pass.

“The committee is predisposed to see it happen,” said committee chair Sharon Strocchia, president of the University Senate. “If the CDC and other governmental organizations can do it, so can we.”

“It was almost overwhelming to realize I was going to be leading the council in a year with such tremendous opportunities,” Lackey said, recalling the start of 2004–05. “But we didn’t know where we were going. There were all these talks around campus about strategic planning and the vision statement. In a special ‘fireside chat’ with President [Jim] Wagner in August that included council members and members of the servant leadership group, he challenged us to ‘be effective.’ Not that the council wasn’t effective in the past, it’s just that he probably didn’t know about our past. I took that as a directive, and we needed to step up into high

With two months to go in her term, the council already has accomplished a great deal. Its infrastructure has been streamlined, and its relationship with Human Resources has been strengthened. The council authored a special strategic planning working document that outlines key areas for best practices in recruitment, development and staff retention. And, as evidenced by Lackey and past president Don Newsome’s presence on the Benefits Review Committee, staff now have a seat at the table concerning major University-wide issues.

Improving communications across the board among the council, Senate and president’s commissions has been a priority of each body, and all of them appear to be the better for it. “We’d all been doing our thing, and then coming together in the middle of the night to try and get things done,” Lackey said, exaggerating only a touch. “Why can’t we meet in consortium? We now have a leaders’ lunch group, so we can talk about things, help each other and bridge silos, to use President Wagner’s term.”

Even though she is proud to display the retirement countdown clock on her desk (right now it’s just south of 1,000 days), Lackey clearly loves both her paying job at Yerkes and her volunteer job with the council. “But I’ve never felt driven to be the leader of anything. Sometimes things have just steered me in that direction.”

Like eight years ago, when her best friend died of cancer. It was Lackey who eulogized her. Putting together thoughts she scribbled on slips of paper, and despite a natural aversion to public speaking, in front of 500 people, she was the lone person who spoke at the funeral. Afterward, her friend’s husband said no one else could have done it.

“I write down everything,” she said. “I’m so inspired by words; I just have to write them down wherever I am because I’m afraid I’ll lose them.”

And although Lackey frequently claims not to crave power, last year she organized a Red Hat Ladies group at Yerkes, “She-Macques in Red Hats,” a play on
“macque,” which is the most common nonhuman primate species at Yerkes. Lackey calls herself the “Alpha Macque.”

For the uninitiated, the Red Hat Society, whose members are frequently known as “Red Hat Ladies,” is a national social organization of independent chapters aimed at women 50 and over. They are known for their red hats and purple attire.

“One of the reasons I love being a Red-Hatter is that the organization is one of ‘disorganization,’” said Lackey. “There are no rules, no bylaws and no dues. You just get a bunch of cronies together who want to let their hair down, dress up silly with purple attire and red hats, and just have fun on outings together.”

The group of six or seven women has journeyed to the Fernbank Museum for IMAX movies and to the Atlanta Botanical Garden for the recent Chihuly in the Garden exhibit. “We go to various places we don’t have to worry about dragging our husbands to,” she said.