Not long ago, Sterly Wilder ’83 got an email from a current Duke trustee and it got her thinking. “I think about these trustees when they were kids, you know, walking around campus.” She shook her head. “And you know, I knew them when they were students.”
Wilder sat in an office that bears her name, in a building that bears her family’s name, thinking about students she knew and advised decades ago who are now Duke leaders – at a moment when she was retiring from her own leadership at Duke.
Senior associate vice president for alumni engagement and development, Wilder stepped down after this year’s commencement. The daughter of longtime Duke professor of chemistry and university marshal Pelham Wilder III, Wilder grew up on the Duke campus, then attended Duke, then worked at Duke for 40 years. When she announced her retirement in February, she was brought to center court at Cameron Indoor Stadium during a timeout for a roaring ovation.
There are so many stories about Wilder – like the furniture run.
“I was probably a little bit socially awkward,” said Grant Hill ’94, remembering his freshman year at Duke. So Wilder, his first-year adviser, turned out to be very important. They made an instant connection – gossiping, talking, just hanging out. “I oftentimes joke that there wasn’t a whole lot of advising going on,” Hill, an NBA hall-of-famer and current Duke trustee, laughed. “And I say that lovingly and affectionately.”
So when Hill moved off campus his junior year and his parents needed to help him furnish an apartment, they didn’t send their credit card to Hill, who was, after all, still a college kid; they sent it to Wilder, whom they knew well as part of the Parents Committee. Wilder drove Hill to stores all over Durham to equip his new apartment. “She was like, ‘You don’t need this; you need that,” Hill recalled.
That was Sterly Wilder. Adviser – but more. “Member of the family,” Hill said.
Nobody knows Duke family like Wilder. She remembers visiting her father’s office at Old Chemistry and then Gross Hall. “It smelled really bad,” she says. “Like chemicals.” But more than her father’s office, she remembered the students coming to their home. “He was very close to his students.” Family tradition. Duke was in her veins. Wilder gave tours of the campus before she even enrolled. “I was the only tour guide for a couple summers,” she says. Three tours a day – “11, 1 and 3.” She paused, grinned. “It was hot.”
When Wilder started at Duke she went to the Dope Shop in the old West Union and cheered for the basketball team even before Duke hired some young coach with a lot of consonants in his name. He stuck around awhile too, but not as long as Wilder. And though less visible, her contribution has been comparable. Even as an undergraduate, she worked for Duke during the summers. As a graduate she moved first into development and then the annual fund, ending up as executive director of alumni affairs and associate vice president, a position she held for almost two decades. “People meet me, they say, ‘I get a lot of emails from you.’”
Bob Shepard, longtime development and alumni affairs vice president who retired in 2018, recalled being introduced at an alumni event, to the usual smattering of applause. “Then Sterly was introduced and got a thundering standing ovation. People were yelling and screaming and all that.” Shepard said that taught him two things about Wilder: First, alumni love her. Second, “She had this unique ability to work with all kinds of alumni, all identities, all backgrounds, all generations. And it became more than a professional relationship.” Family.
Wilder learned to work a room watching former Duke President Terry Sanford, whom she called a giant. “I watched him make people feel like they were the only person in the room.” She also babysat his granddaughter. She developed affinity programs for Black, Hispanic and Asian alumni, expanded Women’s Weekends in New York and Washington into an annual on-campus highlight, and oversaw the development of the Karsh Alumni and Visitors Center – a four-building quad on West Campus that now includes the Wilder Family office building.
If you have been part of Duke over the last 40 years, you’ve made a connection with Wilder. And if she won’t be easy to replace, that connection will remain. “That wasn’t for a couple of years,” Hill said. “It was really for, you know, a lifetime.”
Wilder won’t be here to advise the next Grant Hill, but she won’t be far off, and she’ll still be a regular on the campus that has always been her home. “I always love when I see [alumni] bringing their kids to Duke, and they tell me I was their tour guide,” she said. “The people are still the people, though I do love the buildings. Sometimes I walk down the quad and I’ll have a flashback to a memory. And it just makes me so happy.”