Women's History Month Feature: Nancy Gilkes Gives Her All in Helping Pitt Employees and Retirees

Issue Date: 
March 21, 2011
Nancy GilkesNancy Gilkes

It’s not unusual to see office lights shining well into the evening on Craig Hall’s second floor. That’s where Nancy Gilkes, benefits relationship manager in the University of Pittsburgh’s Office of Human Resources, works at her desk long after other Pitt employees have gone home. Gilkes said she likes to be able to return calls after hours when helping clients who prefer to talk from home instead of in the office or who live in other time zones.

Now in her 43rd year as a Pitt employee, Gilkes has become a go-to person for anyone with employee benefits questions at the University. Her clientele is a large and diverse group of Pitt people—prospective students and employees, active employees, deans, officers, all retirees, and family members of deceased Pitt employees.

“We deal with a lot of ‘What if…’ questions in this office,” explained Gilkes, a petite and friendly woman who listens intently to others.

Callers may ask: “What if I retire before I’m 65?” or “What if my research grant runs out?” While most of the questions are readily answered by the 10-person Benefits Office staff, Gilkes is frequently called upon to research more difficult questions or scenarios.

“I think I’m good at conceptualizing,” she said. “If I don’t know the answer, I can figure out a strategy or course of action to get the answer.” Known for her painstaking attention to detail and problem-solving abilities, Gilkes will spend as many hours as it takes researching a case to find the correct information. In addition to staying late, she also is known to work early morning hours from home when colleagues in administrative offices can easily reach one another. This work ethic helped her garner the Chancellor’s Award for Staff Excellence in Service to the University in 2008.

Gilkes, a North Side native but an Oakland resident for 40-plus years, has worn many hats at Pitt, working mostly with personnel issues, employee relations, and project analysis and implementation. In her current job, she is alternately a researcher, compliance officer, gentle recruiter, and, at times, a hand-holder. She helps to ensure that Pitt’s medical insurance programs comply with University policies as well as those of insurance companies. She talks frequently with finalist candidates who are being considered for faculty or executive positions. If the candidate wants to talk confidentially about Pitt benefits before he or she accepts the job, Gilkes accommodates them, even if it’s early on a Saturday morning.

In the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, Gilkes helped bring about important changes at Pitt. Her duties ranged from serving on committees about affirmative action—where she analyzed policy, drafted reports, and monitored implementation—to helping oversee the change from manual coding to computer automation, which increased the efficiency of record keeping for thousands of faculty and staff. She also served on committees that brought about equity in benefit programs between faculty and staff or same-sex and opposite-sex partners.

“There were things that needed to be done and those in charge found I was available to do them,” said Gilkes, who has a bachelor’s degree in social science from Pitt and earned a Pitt master’s degree in library science while a University employee.

Gilkes’ willingness to assist others extends far beyond the office. She helped launch the University’s successful Christmas Day at Pitt program, which provides a hearty meal and winter hats and gloves for those in need. When the steel mills were shuttered in the 1980s, she spearheaded local clothing and toy collection efforts as part of broader philanthropic initiatives in the Mon Valley.

“Nancy Gilkes is a remarkable person who has remained in the background while giving assistance to hundreds of individuals. She never toots her own horn,” said Gwen Watkins, community activities coordinator for Pitt’s 
Office of Community and Governmental Affairs. “She is exceptional at guiding individuals in the right direction for staff information on benefits and educational resources.”

“Life is filled with unusual circumstances, and many times they involve benefit-related issues,” said Assistant Vice Chancellor for Benefits John Kozar. “Regardless of the time of day or night, Nancy will pursue a resolution to that issue.”

When she is not burning the midnight oil, Gilkes can be found in any one of a number of activities—usually all of them involved with assisting others. She has, for example, eased the transition of East End high school students to college, whether by helping them shop for books or complete financial aid paperwork. She and her husband, a practicing attorney, are active in the outreach program of Grace Memorial Presbyterian Church, doing fundraising for enrichment programs for area children. Every Sunday, and sometimes on a weekday evening, she visits her elderly father to aid him with everyday needs and paperwork.

Strangers are often a part of Gilkes’ life as well. For as long as she can remember, Gilkes said, she and her husband have hosted people in need of short-term housing, including high school cultural exchange students and college students. She remembers one night in particular when she was awakened at 3 o’clock by a knock on her door. She peered out the window and saw a man in a long coat and scarf, and when she went to investigate, the man told her Gilkes’ brother had told him, “If you’re ever stranded in Pittsburgh, go to my sister’s house.” Sure enough, Gilkes looked at the piece of paper the man held and recognized her brother’s handwriting.

Graduate students studying opera stayed briefly with the couple and their two sons and had their recitals at the family home. The Gilkeses were also asked to host members of the St. Petersburg (Russia) Youth Chamber Choir, the Christ Church Cathedral Choir of Oxford (England), and the Texas Boys Choir when their tours brought them to Pittsburgh.

Gilkes’ philanthropic nature may have been instilled in her during her formative years. As an adolescent, she lived with her family in rural Washington County, where she pitched in when her mother and neighbors prepared meals for farmworkers. When rain threatened, she helped farmers hoist hay bales into wagons.

“I can still throw a 40-pound bale, if needed,” she said, laughing.

But for now, the 25,000 Pitt employees and retirees whom the Benefits Office serves are grateful that Gilkes has chosen to stay right where she is.