Grace Simpson, Thompson Rivers University’s retiring Williams Lake campus co-ordinator is a great example of how lifelong learning can help people to achieve their goals and dreams.
Growing up in Maple Ridge, Grace graduated early at age 16 then attended Simon Fraser University to become a teacher.
But after the first year, she decided to work for a while before returning to university, a return that would come in an unexpected way.
She took a computer course at the McKay business school then went to work for IBM in Vancouver for five years. There she met her husband, Jack.
The couple married in 1976 and moved to Prince George where Jack took a job with Motorola selling communication equipment and Grace worked for the Prince George school board.
“It was 40 below that winter with lots of snow,” Grace recalls. “It was a smaller community then and a lot of fun.”
After three years in Prince George the couple moved to Williams Lake where Jack took a job with Radio Shack. Their son, Jamie, was born soon after their arrival and three years later their daughter, Heather, was born.
A year after Jamie was born, Grace started work as secretary/receptionist at the then Cariboo College located in the AVCO building on Second Avenue.
In 1986, Cariboo College moved to a new home in the refurbished former waterbed factory on Hodgson Road.
In 1997, the Hodgson Road campus (now Pioneer Complex) was vacated after land slippage rendered the building unsafe.
For the next 10 years Cariboo College/University College of the Cariboo programs were run out of multiple buildings in the downtown core, a time during which Grace says the college lost a lot of its campus feel.
But as fate would have it student enrolment in Williams Lake was dropping and School District 27 ended up selling the former Anne Stevenson Junior Secondary School to the college.
The new campus opened in December 2006 in the refurbished ASJS building on Western Avenue, which for the past 10 years has served the community as Thompson Rivers University Williams Lake.
Through all the changes Jack and Grace were both working parents.
While Jack worked at a variety of jobs: River Industries, City of Williams Lake bylaw enforcement officer, Search and Rescue, and helped to start a local fishing shop, Grace continued to take on more responsibilities with the college as it grew into a university.
“It was a challenge at times but you make it work,” Grace says. “The kids were involved in sports and we had reliable daycare. They were good students and easy to raise.”
As her responsibilities grew Grace took courses and workshops to build the necessary skills to work her way up from receptionist/secretary to campus secretary, to office co-ordinator and for the past 10 years, Williams Lake campus co-ordinator.
Several times over the years she has also been called upon to fill in as acting director.
She has been an integral part of three campus moves, three institutional changes, and worked for seven different college/university directors.
“The job description just expanded from that first small office,” Grace says.
She recalls administration getting its first computer in 1980 which made the accounting and registration processes a lot easier.
For her efforts Grace earned the Cariboo College Excellence in Service Award in 1989/90 and the TRU Distinguished Service Award in 2006/07.
“I was very honoured that people would even nominate me,” Grace says.
For the past year or so, Grace has been training her assistant, campus co-ordinator Stacy Wong as her replacement.
While Grace came up the ranks learning as she went, the job description for her replacement is now much more formalized.
It includes a requirement for a business administration degree, several years of experience, and a long list of duties established by the university.
The job basically includes running the day-to-day operations of the university, making sure bills are paid, facilities are maintained and kept clean, payroll is met, budgets are set, websites are up to date, promotional material is available, courses are scheduled, events are booked, and supervising the now large university support staff.
“Whatever needs to be done,” Grace says. “I like to work behind the scenes — as one director put it — “making sure the trains are running and on time.”
She says the job is always interesting and requires a lot of flexibility because you can go to work in the morning with a plan of what you will accomplish that day and everything will change if some new issue demands your attention.
After 36 years of supporting the development of higher education in Williams Lake, Grace will join Jack in retirement on March 24.
“The hardest thing is to pick a date,” says Grace.
Jack has been retired for 10 years, but Grace didn’t settle on her own retirement date until learning that they would become first-time grandparents this month.
TRU’s year-end budgets are also done and spring seems like a nice time to start something new, Grace adds.
“I think the Williams Lake campus has a bright future,” Grace says. “We have a great facility, great faculty and great staff who are all knowledgeable, helpful and flexible.”
With 12-acres to expand on, and in developing programs such as the saw-filing course which is the only one in B.C. and the new Applied Sustainable Ranching program, nursing and other niche programs, she says TRU Williams Lake is drawing students from from all over B.C., Canada and internationally.
Added to that the university has the support of the TRU Grit fundraising group. Their current focus is offering scholarships/bursaries to prospective students.
She will most miss all the people she works with and all the people she has had the good fortune to get to know in Williams Lake.
“I will miss it,” Grace says. “I like structure. I will miss the people. I really do love my job. It is challenging and rewarding.”
She and Jack have bought a travel trailer and will be selling their home in Williams Lake to spend some time travelling around visiting family and friends and making a trip across Canada at some point.
Their first destination will be to Castlegar to welcome their new granddaughter into the world.
Son Jamie is manager of the Safeway in Nelson and lives in Castlegar with his partner Ashley who is expecting their first child this month, a baby girl.
Heather and her husband, Benn Neufeld, live in Vancouver where Heather is manager of the Room for Two maternity store on Commercial Drive and Benn works in customer service with an IT company.
Grace says they will return to the Cariboo periodically to visit friends and to indulge Jack’s passion for fishing, because this area has some of the best fishing in the province. She also plans to pick up some more fishing skills of her own.
“It’s kind of exciting times. Lots of change but all good,” Grace says.