Each August at Convocation, the annual formal gathering of first-year students of Washington University in St. Louis, it was Steve Givens’ job to prepare the torches that Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton and the faculty speaker would hold as they led the students from the Athletic Complex to Brookings Quadrangle.
The early-evening procession would wind through campus sidewalks lined by parents holding glow sticks, setting a tone of dignity and welcome to students experiencing the campus community for the first time.
During the Convocation, as speeches were being made, Givens, associate vice chancellor and chief of staff to Wrighton, would wait behind the scenes with the torches in two red cases. Just as the ceremony was wrapping up, he’d go outside and assemble, light and have them ready to go the moment Wrighton and the speaker emerged from the gym. “Then I’d run — or, rather, walk really fast,” he said with a laugh, “ahead of the procession to the other end of campus, to be there to take it from him.”
That’s a chief of staff’s job in a nutshell: Keeper of the flame for the torchbearer; holder of the key for the gatekeeper. Two steps ahead if need be, or one step behind — or beside — when called upon.
And when Wrighton steps down this week, Givens, after 24-plus years of serving the university, both in Public Affairs and in the chancellor’s office, retires as well.
“Steve Givens has been an incredibly valuable contributor to the progress of Washington University,” Wrighton said. “We worked closely together for many years, and he has never let me or the university down. He has been a key liaison between the chancellor’s office and many offices and programs across the university, and he has been eyes and ears for me.
“I would not have been able to function effectively without Steve. He is conscientious, highly capable and creative. He has great judgment and knew when to engage with me on an issue or question or when to act on my behalf.”
“Steve and Mark had one of the best partnerships I’ve seen here,” said Rob Wild, associate vice chancellor for student affairs, who also held the chief of staff position for a time. “They had very different personalities, but Steve intuitively knew exactly what Mark needed: words of encouragement, how to delegate, advice if needed on dealing with a difficult situation on campus or in the community.
“He kept things simple and never complicated matters. That was one of his greatest assets: Focus on one thing, and don’t make it harder than it needs to be,” Wild said.
“Steve has been a great right-hand man for Mark Wrighton because he is the epitome of a ‘servant leader,’” said Jill Stratton, associate dean in the Office of Residential Life. “He’s so authentic. And he joins a long line of servant leaders at WashU, including Bill Danforth, Jim McLeod, Mark Wrighton, even William Greenleaf Eliot, who was so humble he didn’t want the university named after him.”
‘My job was to be available’
“I couldn’t have dreamed, in a million years, growing up in north St. Louis, that I would be sitting here right now,” Givens said from his office in Brookings Hall. “Washington University was never even on my radar screen.” So he attended community college first, then earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Missouri-St. Louis (UMSL).
His early career was one of journalism and higher education writing, including a stint as speechwriter and assistant for then-UMSL Chancellor Marguerite Ross Barnett. His career at Washington University began in 1992 as an editor at Washington magazine. But when his wife, Sue, was offered a job opportunity in England, he moved there with his young family, teaching creative writing and helping to raise his children, Jon and Jenny.
The family returned in 1997, and Givens was looking for work when Fred Volkmann, then vice chancellor for Public Affairs, called and said, “Mark Wrighton is looking for an assistant and I think you’d be great at it.”
Indeed he has been. Aside from a six-year stint as associate vice chancellor for Public Affairs leading the university communications team, Givens has served as the chancellor’s liaison to all things Washington University.
“My job was to be available,” Givens said. “I went to a lot of meetings and sat on a lot of committees, because Mark couldn’t possibly be in all those places.” And part of his job was leading special projects, including the university’s sesquicentennial in 2003 and, of course, the events sponsored by the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) — four of them since 2000.
“The main thing is the main thing,” Givens famously said before the 2016 presidential debate, meaning the countless hours of preparation and hoopla should not take away from the fact that for two hours, Washington University would have the eyes of the world on it. The debates are among the moments Givens said he’ll remember most.
“To know you’ve played a role in something so historic is something,” he said. “But working on something so big, with so many throughout the university, was gratifying, too. Because of those debates, I have friends now that I never might have had, because we’ve been through ‘war’ together.”
What has made Givens so endearing to so many throughout the university and in the St. Louis community is what Stratton calls his “deep humanity and ability to listen” — a skill vital to anyone who sits in an office next to power. But he brought with it a gentle wisdom, too, Stratton said, whether it be with wealthy donors and trustees, everyday staff members or students. It didn’t matter — they were all important.
“When you represent the chancellor, you are constantly mindful you represent the university,” Givens said. “I think my training as a journalist really suited me well because you have to go into every conversation open to what that person’s going to tell you. You have to really listen.”
His days were jam-packed, and he admitted it will be nice not having to check his phone first thing every morning to know how his day will unfold, what crisis might call for his attention or how many meetings he needs to attend. But his deep love for Washington University will remain.
“I loved the intellectual fervor, the chance to, every day, come to work and know that you could have a conversation that would open your eyes to something new, or you could attend a lecture, or just have a conversation with a colleague, faculty, staff member or even a student,” he said.
“In the midst of doing all that work, you’re in the midst of this broad, intellectual, academic tradition that goes back thousands of years,” he said. “That’s humbling.”
In a few weeks, Givens will close the door on his Brookings Hall office for the last time. He has lit his final torch; he will hand over his last key. “He will be deeply missed by the university,” Wrighton said, “and I will always treasure his dedication and working with me to pursue success in many initiatives, programs and events. The university is fortunate to have had Steve Givens serving our community so well, and I wish him and his family all the best in the next phase of his life.”
That next phase includes spending time with Sue and his children and grandchildren: Jon and his wife, Jess, and their three children Noah, 6, Kate, 4, and Laney, not quite 2; and daughter Jenny and her husband, Zach. He’ll serve as a consultant to the CPD, helping other universities create the kind of teams needed to pull off an event of such international stature. He’ll hone his craft as a musician and have more time to sing with his band, Mo Bottom Project.
He will continue to write, and he already has a position lined up as a regular columnist on spirituality and religion for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “For me, being spiritual is about listening to another person’s story, and helping them figure out what that means to them,” he said.
And he knows that he and Sue will come back for concerts and plays, too. “I don’t regret one moment here,” he said. “But I’m a believer in leaving breathing space in life to think about what it is you’re doing and to start each day with quiet reflection.
“I do know I’ll look at my phone a little differently in the morning,” he said with a chuckle.