Lefton: from his assistant’s perspective

Allison Smith

Debra Drake loves her job.

“It’s never boring,” she said. “There’s always something going on. I get to meet a lot of people, too.”

Debra is the assistant to President Lester Lefton. She helps Lefton do everything from organize his schedule to help him dress for graduation.

“Every aspect of Dr. Lefton’s life at Kent State, I help to make sure it flows,” she said.

While her daughter was attending Kent State, Debra decided she would try to get a job at the university. She didn’t get the job until her daughter’s last semester.

Before Debra came to Kent State, she had never worked in higher education. She is a published author and motivational speaker, has worked mostly in the business and finance field as an assistant to the president of Akron Metropolitan Housing and is a homebuilder.

Debra said she was actually putting down the foundation for a new home when she got the call about her new job at Kent State. She was hired in the Office of Diversity in 2005 and from there worked as assistant to Charlene Reed, who is the secretary to the Board of Trustees.

Debra said she loved working with the board because it gave her a lot of interaction with people and students.

“I’m a people person,” Debra said. “I’m very customer service driven. Everyone is my customer; students, co-workers, even the president.”

When Linda Herman, the previous assistant to Lefton and Carol Cartwright, retired after 18 years at Kent State, Debra wasn’t sure whether she should apply for the job or not.

“It wasn’t a position that I initially wanted, because I loved working with the board,” she said. “I really wanted to make sure that somebody was there that would do a good job, though. Besides Linda, I was the person who knew the most about it, so I decided to go for it.”

Debra became the president’s assistant in June 2009. She said she was worried the job would essentially “chain me to my desk,” but she ended up being able to interact with a lot of people. She says everyone who comes up to the second floor on the library is valued, and she hopes they walk away feeling great about themselves.

“We entertain everybody from kings to custodians, and everyone, I think, leaves feeling like a king,” she said. “We’re very hospitable. You know, we say ‘Can we get you a cup of coffee? Or some water? Is there anything you need?’”

Debra said she’s always had jobs that have to have some level of confidentiality. Of course, being the assistant to the president of Kent State, she knows a secret or two.

“I sometimes know things that I don’t know I know,” she said. “Sometimes I realize after the fact, ‘Oh that was that important?’”

When Debra first got to Kent State, she had only completed her associate degree in business from the University of Akron. Her boss in the Office of Diversity told her he couldn’t encourage students to get their degrees without urging her to get her own.

“He was like, ‘I’m determined to help you see this through,’ and I said, ‘OK.’” she said. “At one point, I was working full time, and I was taking 18 credit hours.”

When she moved to the president’s office, she was determined to get her degree. She thought she’d take her time, though.

“I thought, ‘Oh, I don’t have to get A’s all the time,’” she said. “But the president was like ‘Oh, I’m going to have to see your grades.’ And I’m like, ‘what?’ But it really kept me on track because I had to show the president my grades.”

Debra graduated in 2008, a semester before her daughter graduated from the accelerated nursing program.

“At graduation, I wanted to be the last one to walk across the stage because I figured I was the last one to finish,” she said. “I figured everyone had done the four-year plan and I had done the 26-year plan.”

So Debra was the final one to cross and Lefton hugged her and all of the deans came down to congratulate her.

“I really never thought that I would do it because sometimes you get this far in life and in your career, and it’s like, ‘What difference does it make?’” she said. “But it was a sense of accomplishment.”

Debra said she thinks people don’t often see the side of Lefton that she does. She said if she could say anything to students, she would ask they attempt to see how he tries to make himself available and accessible to everybody.

“Sometimes people will see him walking across campus, and they say, ‘Well, he didn’t speak to me,’” she said. “He’s probably rehearsing the speech he’s about to give, or he’s trying to remember items that he’s going to tell me about so I can get the correspondents.”

Debra said she wants people to remember that Lefton is a man. He’s a dad, he’s a grandfather and that he has feelings.

“I’d like to see people remember that and respect that,” she said. “Again, I understand the position of his office, but he’s still a person.”

Contact features reporter Allison Smith at [email protected].