Inspirational UI leader Mary Jo Small remembered


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When Arthur Small III was young, he wanted to go to a friend’s house for a sleepover.

But he had a cold and his mother, longtime UI administrator Mary Jo Small, wouldn’t let him go.

Arthur Small said he would have understood if his mother had responded to his complaints with “I’m bigger than you.” But instead, Mary Jo Small explained the ethical and legal obligation parents had to their children. She even pointed out the law in a copy of the Iowa Code.

“That story captures the way that she dealt with life, with challenges, with questions,” Arthur Small said. “She was always looking, not to brute power or rote application of rules, but always thinking about what is the right thing to do.”

Mary Jo Small passed away Dec. 25, 2009, at the age of 72. She had spent approximately 40 years at the UI, serving 10 years as an assistant vice president and 17 years as the associate vice president for Finance and University Services. Her family is asking that donations be made to a fund that finances continued development for UI employees.

At the UI, Small was critical in the development of the current structure of the Human Resources Office, championing the expansion of the UI human-rights statement to create protection for gays and lesbians. She also played a vital role in developing the university’s first sexual-harassment policy.

She was passionate about making sure everyone was treated equally, her former colleagues agreed.
Before computers, she went through the salaries of every employee on campus by hand each year to make sure there was no inequity.

“I can still see her in a conference room we used to set up with a pile of computer printouts of all the salary adjustments that were going on,” UI Vice President for Finance Doug True said. “She would look through all of that; it would take days.”

She had high standards for others and lived up to them herself, said UI President Emeritus Willard “Sandy” Boyd.

“If she didn’t think I was doing the right thing, she’d come in and straighten me out,” Boyd said. “But I have enormous affection for her; she was a very dear friend and an esteemed colleague.”

Outside her work at the UI, Small was deeply involved in politics, participating in numerous presidential and senatorial campaigns. She was inspired to become involved in politics after her father asked her to fight for the workingman.

“He told us we had the education he could never get, so we had the knowledge to get into politics and do what he couldn’t do,” Small told The Daily Iowan in 2007.

Her involvement in Gene McCarthy’s antiwar campaign in 1968 helped reinvigorate and strengthen a splintered party, said Johnson County Auditor Tom Slockett.

Slockett recalled his memories of Small singing in the car and reciting poetry from memory.

Her son also remembered her as a passionate intellectual.

“I was almost a teenager before I came to understand that in other families, they didn’t talk about tax policy around the dinner table, or literature, or other issues from the world of ideas,” he said.

It worked, he noted. Out of three children, two have Ph.D.s and one earned a law degree.

He called her constant striving to do what was right courageous.

“But she didn’t think of it as courageous, just the way one did things,” he said. “It didn’t occur to her to take a shortcut with people’s lives.”

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