By Joe Garvey
In Old Dominion University's College of Arts and Letters, Janet Katz has been the go-to person when you had a question about, well, just about anything.
"She knows the history of issues, the people to contact and the best way to get things done," said Mona Danner, professor and chair of the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice, whom Katz hired in 1993. "Janet is smart and savvy and kind and upbeat."
"Janet has been my touchstone," added Ruth Triplett, professor and associate chair in the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice. "If I have a question, it is Janet I go to. If I can't figure something out, it is Janet who helps. If I need anything, I know I can turn to Janet."
"I quickly discovered that Janet was the institutional memory of the College," said Kent Sandstrom, sociology professor and former Arts and Letters dean.
Katz, who is retiring after a 43-year career at ODU, including nearly three decades as associate dean of Arts and Letters, explained her role in simple terms.
"What I see myself doing is helping other people do their jobs," she said. "The ability to make other peoples' jobs easier - that's certainly the part of the job that I like."
Katz, who grew up outside Albany, N.Y., did her undergraduate work in anthropology at Kalamazoo College in Michigan.
"You're not really worried about getting a job when you're an anthropology major," she said. "You're doing what you're interested in with the assumption that something would come up."
Something did, in a most unexpected way.
Kalamazoo College required students to do career service projects. As a sophomore, Katz worked for Margaret Mead, who was opening the "Peoples of the Pacific" at the Museum of Natural History in New York City. As a junior, she studied at the University of Nairobi in Kenya.
But as a senior, for reasons she still can't explain, she worked with Criminal Court Judge Mary Johnson Lowe in New York City and wrote a report on the state of criminal justice in the city.
"It was a wonderful experience," Katz said.
And one that provided direction for her career.
"Clearly, what that said to me was, 'This is incredibly interesting, but the only people who are actually in the courtroom - first of all are lawyers and defendants - and there's not a single happy person in this room,'" Katz explained. "Because courts aren't a happy place. So, I thought, I wonder if there's a way I can actually study it without being a lawyer, without doing it because I thought this would be so depressing."
As luck would have it, her hometown college, State University of New York University at Albany, was one of the few in the country at the time that offered a criminal justice curriculum. She earned her master's and Ph.D. there.
She applied to ODU on the recommendation of some colleagues even before she finished her doctorate.
"I had no idea where in Virginia Norfolk was," she said. "I figured the pilot did. I had no idea we were on the water, I had no idea that we were this close to North Carolina. I knew nothing."
Well, not exactly nothing.
"I knew it was south," she said. "I knew they would have less snow."
Triplett, a 1984 graduate of ODU who was a student of Katz's, recalled her approach to teaching and the impact she had on her career.
"I remember being in class with Janet - she was teaching Women and Crime - and being impressed by her style in the classroom and how effectively she communicated the material and was able to capture the attention of everyone," Triplett said.
She added that Katz helped her when she decided to apply to graduate school, wrote a recommendation letter and urged her to accept an offer from the University of Maryland.
"I had no idea at the time that UMD was then, and is still now, a top university for criminology, and that Janet's advice was going to shape my career and the rest of my life," said Triplett, who became a colleague of Katz when she returned to ODU as an associate professor in 1999.
Katz served several roles in the College of Arts and Letters - director of Women's Studies, Director of the Arts and Letters Office of Research Services, and chair of the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice - in addition to her role as associate dean, which she took on in 1993.
It was clear that she relished her job.
"During my first couple of days at ODU, I remember walking down the hallway of the ninth floor and hearing Janet's laughter cascading out of her office and into the dean's suite," Sandstrom said. "It brought a smile to my face, and it clearly revealed how much Janet enjoyed her work as associate dean, especially because of the opportunities it gave her to connect with colleagues across the University. I looked forward to hearing Janet's heartfelt laughter each day I served as dean. It reminded me of the importance of balancing a deep commitment to one's job with the capacity to experience joy, grace and levity."
She was also involved with the ODU Women's Caucus for many years, serving as president in 1988-89 and winning the organization's Outstanding Woman of the Year Award in 2006. Katz worked on many initiatives, including the University's sexual harassment policy and improving lighting on campus.
"Janet was on the board of the University Women's Caucus when I joined and there, it was clear to see her impact," Triplett said. "Having someone with her knowledge base and deep understanding of how the University worked was one thing that helped make the UWC effective and set the stage for its role on campus today."
Katz has seen many changes over her more than four decades at ODU. Among the most significant is how the University is viewed as more than just "the local college."
"I think that we have a better reputation," she said. "But I think we were always better than a lot of people realized in terms of the quality of the faculty we were hiring and the research they were doing. Our reputation is catching up with what we've always been."
As the end of her career nears, Katz finds herself in a limelight she'd prefer to avoid. Danner said that quality "is exactly one of the reasons she is so beloved."
"I feel blessed to have had the opportunity to work with Janet over the past six years, and I wish I could have worked with her longer," Sandstrom added. "As I have told her many times, she has been a valuable source of insight and counsel to all the leaders of the College. She has also been an inspiring model of how to lead with dedication, compassion and a helpful spirit."