Former Academic Coordinator Thelma Paige-Deneal has served at Howard University for over two-thirds of her life – just over 46 years. The 69-year-old reflects on her career at the university which has caught the attention of hundreds of thousands of social media users.
On Feb. 7 of this year, a video of Paige-Deneal was posted to TikTok by her grandson, Tylan Paige, who has over 29,000 followers on the app. The video has accumulated over two million views, 300,000 likes, 700 comments and continues to receive likes and comments months later.
For many, Paige-Deneal’s devotions to the University and its students is extraordinary. Viewers of the viral TikTok video commended Paige-Deneal on her long career and celebrated her accomplishments. One commenter wrote, “I love Mrs. Deneal!!!! She was so kind and helpful towards me during my time at Howard!!!! I miss her so much.”
For Paige-Deneal however, the length of her tenure at the University was just indicative of her passion. “Time is not an issue when you love what you’re doing,” Paige-Deneal said. “And I loved what I’m doing and I love to help people. I love to be a servant.”
Growing up on 8th Street NW in Washington, D.C., which is down the street from Howard, Paige-Deneal became familiar with the University from an early elementary school age. “I always had a fascination of seeing the girls with the plaid skirts, the white socks, you know the long white socks, the loafers,” she said. “So, it always fascinated me, just to see these girls.”
The major driving forces that led Paige-Deneal to pursue a career at Howard, however, was her mother, Mary Jefferson, who worked at what was then called Howard University’s School of Liberal Arts, now known as the College of Art and Sciences, and the opportunity for Paige-Deneal to provide her children with affordable higher education at Howard. Her daughter, Tiffany Paige, received both her bachelor’s of music and master’s of social work from the University.
On Dec. 5, 1976, Paige-Deneal officially began her first position at the University, initially serving as a secretary in the economics department. “I was doing the same job…I’m a person, I believe you should never go into a job and just know your job. You should know every job that’s surrounding you,” she said. “Because you never know when you’re going to have to step in and not only assist somebody but you never know when you may be called on to do it.”
Throughout her time at Howard, Paige-Deneal has fulfilled various different roles. From her initial role as secretary in the economics department to secretary to the chair. Then transitioning to the College of Fine Arts where she would spend the rest of her tenure. There she worked in the Office of the Dean, served as administrative assistant, secretary to the dean and academic coordinator.
She has witnessed Howard’s evolution over the past four decades, and her longevity with the University has given her a unique perspective on its development. Paige-Deneal recounts her early years at Howard fondly, “…back in the day, that Howard University became family. We celebrated each other. We cried when folk transitioned. We celebrated the births. We were around each other,” she said.
The familial bond at Howard is what Paige-Deneal attributes to her continuously coming back to Howard year after year. “It was the love of the people and the love of the students. I didn’t call them students. I called them my babies cause that’s what they were and that’s what they still are,” she said.
Paige-Deneal has noticed a shift in this bond, however, throughout her time at Howard. “…Unfortunately, that element of Howard to me personally is not there like it used to be. I’m not saying it’s not there, but from what I can see right now. I don’t see the same thing,” she said.
Paige-Deneal spoke to the ways in which she worked to perpetuate the familial bond while at Howard, “You know, when you come into an office I want you to feel welcome. I want you to know that when you leave out this door I gave you 900 percent, not 100. And if you need to come back again, you can,” she said.
Paige-Deneal even extends her grace outside of the professional setting by, on various occasions, hosting numerous students in her home for dinners and social gatherings. Notable alumni, Chadwick Boseman, is amongst the many to have been hosted at her residence.
Paige-Deneal remains humble despite all the recent attention she’s been receiving on the internet and maintains that helping others is simply just one of her passions. Her daughter, however, believes she is more than worthy of this praise. “She deserves it though, trust me,” Paige said. “She’s had students live with her. She’s moved kids in with us. We had one student that stayed with us for like five years. She’s deserving of it.”
Although her love for the school remains, Paige-Deneal decided recently to officially retire from Howard on Jul. 5 of this year. “You know, I wanted to walk on my own and it was time,” she said.
Paige-Deneal’s family intends on throwing her a retirement party in October to celebrate her tenure at Howard. The family is hopeful in receiving a “resolution” from the University, according to Paige.
Moving forward, Paige-Deneal plans to enjoy life and be of service where she can. She says her heart is still with Howard and is only one call away. “I love all my babies. All them kids that came through Howard University know me. None of them can say that Ms. Deneal didn’t show them love cause I did and I do.”
Copy edited by Chanice McClover-Lee