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Debbie Garris

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In Memoriam: Deborah "Debbie" Saunders Garris
July 3, 1951 - Feb. 14, 2014

Debbie Garris, a long-time staff member of the School of Journalism and Mass Communications, died unexpectedly Friday, Feb. 14, 2014.

Debbie joined the staff of the school in 1997 as administrative assistant to the director of development.

In 2003, she became administrative assistant to Dr. Shirley Staples Carter, then director of the school, and later to Dr. Carter's successor, Dr. Carol J. Pardun.

An overflow crowd of faculty and staff attended the celebration of her life at the Steeplechase Museum in Camden on Monday, Feb. 17. Rev. William R. Bouknight officiated the service and spoke of Debbie's life-long passion for horses, her zestful personality and dedication to her mother, Phyllis Cash Saunders. He also spoke of the "new life she was given" in 2000 when Dr. Keith Kenney, a professor at the J-school, donated a kidney to her.

Memorials may be made in Debbie's memory to the Walter M. Crowe Animal Shelter, 460 S. Fair Street, Camden, SC 29020 or a charity of one's choice.

Comments from friends, colleagues and students

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Debbie Garris was the keeper of the lighthouse here at the school. If something wasn't working, she found out how to fix it. She kept us safe.

She believed her job was to keep a look out for me. When she filled her basket with candy, she always made sure first to take out a few pieces for me. When she went to the farmer's market to get the season's first blueberries, she would get enough to give me half. She screened phone calls for me — even when I didn't ask her to, because as the keeper, she thought it her job to keep a watch out for me.

Debbie also kept watch over our students. She did what she could to assure that we had enough classes at the right time so the students could navigate their majors and graduate on time.

I will miss her bright light.

  Dr. Carol J. Pardun
Director, School of Journalism and Mass Communications

Debbie and I would occasionally talk about horses, a diversion we both enjoy that for those moments took us away from daily concerns.  Some years ago we rode together on the trails and woods around Camden, vaulting rails and hedges and scattering foxes and hares.  At least, that’s Debbie’s story and mine. 

Most communication between a horse and rider is non-verbal.  But Debbie was not shy about communicating.  Her kitchen memos are legend.  A roll of her eyes said much.

On Debbie’s desk are two buttons that speak to her ability to cope with and solve the problems and needs of students, faculty and staff.  Push one, and it says, “That was easy.”  The other cries, “Off with your head.”

I’m thinking Debbie is not so much in repose, but on some celestial ride, her saddlebag brimming with the candies she always provided us, and just that single button that says, “That was easy.”

  Charles Bierbauer
Dean, College of Mass Communications and Information Studies

Debbie Garris made a significant impact on the school and college. She loved both and how fitting it is that her last message to us was about the kitchen that she designed, being the architect that she was, and only one of many roles she filled in the college. Many of us occupy offices in spaces she designed that I never imagined could be so configured.

Debbie was passionate about her work and contributed to the success of school operations. An administrative staff award and some common place in the new building might be appropriate memorials in appreciation for all she did for the program, administrators, faculty, staff and students. Her desk was the center, the heart of the school and college. Thank you, Debbie.

  Dr. Shirley Staples Carter
Professor - School of Journalism and Mass Communications

I'm heartbroken. It's taken me 24 hours to be able to write about this.

Debbie was one of my first friends when I returned to Columbia 14 years ago. We shared some really good times over the years and she was an incredible support to me when my husband Jace died.

I'll miss her moxie, her sense of humor and even her irascible comments when someone on faculty or staff showed a misplaced sense of self importance! What brings me joy is knowing she can now be with her John whom I know she missed.

When I think of Debbie, I will always think of the Carolina Gamecocks — and I will think of horses.

Debbie was a tried and true Gamecock with much more school spirit for our shared alma mater than I'll probably ever possess. More importantly, though, she was a supporter of the University of South Carolina and, because of her job, an ambassador of sorts for USC and its J-school. Lots of visitors to our school met and saw Debbie first.

Horses were a passion for Debbie. As I mourn her loss, I can see her in my mind's eye. She is riding a horse. She's going fast. And she is free. None of the health problems that held her back in this life can touch her now.

She most definitely is — and will be — missed.

  Cecile Holmes
Associate Professor - School of Journalism and Mass Communications

Our new mantra will be WWDD: What would Debbie do? Need Scantron sheets, office space, office supplies or a room to hold a study session you went to Debbie who effortlessly solved the problem — occasionally with a pithy comment about the Kudzu tendencies of our Coliseum neighbors. WWWD (What will we do) without her? Carry on of course, like Debbie would have done.

  Jay Bender
Reid H. Montgomery Freedom of Information Chair, School of Journalism and Mass Communications

She wore a smile in good and tough times through the past 14 years I have known her. Her southern charm will never be forgotten.

  Dr. Ran Wei
Professor, School of Journalism and Mass Communications

I'm finding it difficult to think about the school without Debbie. She was the heart of the school, connected to everyone — faculty, staff, and students. She touched everything we did, from our courses and classrooms to our meetings and merriment. She never had a harsh word for anyone (except those who left dirty dishes in the sink). She shared her love of horses and Gamecocks with anyone who would listen.

Tonight, I wish I had listened more.

  Dr. Augie Grant
J. Rion McKissick Professor of Journalism  - School of Journalism and Mass Communications

I am so saddened by this news about Debbie. She was always so sweet and patient with me and I believe she truly loved our school. I will miss her.

  Ernest L. Wiggins
Associate Professor, School of Journalism and Mass Communications

Debbie Garris was the soul of the School of Journalism. Her infectious laugh was always a pleasant distraction, along with her collection of desktop toys. She made the world make more sense and we are all diminished by her loss.

  Dr. Tom Weir
Associate Professor, School of Journalism and Mass Communications

I lost a good friend and co-worker Friday. She was a wonderful woman who could put someone in his place and make him burst into laughter at the same time. The J-school staff is a family and we lost a great member. Tomorrow I will go to work and for the first time in 10 years this lovely lady won't be there.

  Leslie Dennis
Scholastic Press Manager

Saddened by the unexpected death of Debbie, longtime administrative assistant of the School of Journalism & Mass Communications. Everyone knew Debbie, but she was extra special to adjunct teachers like me, who don't always know how to get things done around the office. Debbie knew all the ropes, and invented a good many of them. We'll all miss her.

  George Johnson
Adjunct Faculty, School of Journalism and Mass Communications

Such a strange, weird week ending in sad news. I don't think I would have made it through J-school without Debbie's wit and encouragement. You will be missed, lady. So much.

  Julia Sellers
School of Journalism and Mass Communications, '06

There are times when you are cruising along in life and life makes sure it gives you a full body slam. Such was tonight when an email arrived from our dean telling us that the journalism department's longtime administrative assistant, Debbie Garris, had died. We will miss you, Debbie. Your laugh kept our hearts bright and your look kept us honest. I might even believe that earthquake was you telling us to behave.

  Doug Fisher
Senior Instructor, School of Journalism and Mass Communications

I worked with Debbie in Charleston in the late 70's and early 80's. She had the most contagious smile and laughter of any one I have ever known. We reconnected when my daughter attended the USC School of Journalism and Mass Communications. She watched over Carrie when we lost our son in 2008. Debbie was truly ONE of a kind. The earthly world has lost a good one, but the eternal world has gained a winner. So glad she is reunited with her husband. She is truly in a good place. God's peace to all.


Anne Burris
Former co-worker and mother of School of Journalism and Mass Communications alum Caroline Burris,'10

Debbie was a rare gem. She had a wonderful sense of humor, knew how to get things done and often accomplished tasks of Herculean proportions for the benefit of faculty, fellow staffers and students. She will be sorely missed for her myriad contributions to the smooth operation of the J-school. Throughout my time as a faculty member at USC, I personally benefited from her generosity and diligence.

  Jeff Ranta
Instructor, School of Journalism and Mass Communications

I share everyone's shock and sadness over Debbie's passing. She was truly the heart of the school and will be deeply missed. There never seemed to be a problem she could not solve, or, at least, work around with dedication and determination. There is now not only an un-fillable void at her desk, but in everyone's heart.

  Harvie Nachlinger
Senior Instructor

Debbie gave each of us her all: grace, wit, passion, joy and loyalty. May she rest in peace.

  Karen Mallia
Associate Professor

Debbie was an important heart beat in the life of the J-school staff family. Every couple months, around a student holiday, the staff would all leave campus for a "staff meeting" at someone's home or a local restaurant. One year at Christmas, Debbie brought some special door prizes to add to the festivities. She was kind of like that - always thinking of ways to make things more special. Her wit and personality kept us laughing — at her and at ourselves. Even when she was "griping" about something, she had a twinkle in her eye and you knew that she still loved whoever she was perturbed with at the moment.

I was hired about a year before she was, so I've worked with her almost my entire career here. I especially enjoyed her creative flair in earrings and scarves. I stopped to admire them many times but the discussion usually quickly turned to animals - particularly dogs - mine and hers. I will never forget her. And I'm sure the rest of the staff and I will never walk into the kitchen without looking around to see if there's something that needs to be picked up. We love you, Debbie Garris.


Patty Hall
Webmaster, College of Mass Communications and Information Studies

I am sorry to hear of her passing. She was a great resource whenever I had a question. I will miss her.

  Nandini Sen
Ph.D. student - School of Journalism and Mass Communications

Debbie G!!! I loved seeing Debbie every day and saying “hey Debbie G” and her reply of “hey baby!”. She always left me with a smile even when she was mad at me. I know how proud Debbie was of her nieces. She and I swapped stories of our nieces and nephews and their adventures. I am going to miss Debbie G terribly!

  Art Farlowe
Student Services Director - School of Journalism and Mass Communications

Debbie was not only helpful to all the faculty and staff at the J-school, but she was also helpful to all the students who worked with her, including my son. Carl loved Debbie and would do things for her that if I asked him to do, well ... she could work miracles. She loved him as if he were her own, and I loved her for that. I will certainly miss stopping by her desk to tell her a “Carl story.” No one understood the kids like she did.

  Karen Flowers
Director of Scholastic Journalism Organizations

Debbie was a wonderful friend and co-worker. She was an integral part of our lives and an integral part of this school. I am still in disbelief that she will not be walking through the door at any moment. Her personality was genuine ... her laughter was unique and infectious. Her dedication to the school was apparent as was her willingness to help others. I will miss my colleague, but more than that I will deeply miss my friend. I know she knows we are all thinking about her and always will.

  Pierre d'Autel
Network Administrator, College of Mass Communications and Information Studies

I have so many hilarious Debbie stories; unfortunately most of them are unprintable. For the last twelve years she was the greatest friend I could ever have asked for. I will truly miss hearing her contagious laugh which resonated down the hallway. I hope to pass by her desk soon with a smile, rather than the sadness that I feel today.

  Nancy Twohey
Assistant to the Dean, College of Mass Communications and Information Studies

Each time I visited the J-school and stopped by Debbie’s desk she would always get up, smile and give me a big hug! She loved her family, the J-school, horses and her many causes. I would buy some items she was selling for some fund raiser and she would buy girl scout cookies from my grandchildren. So many of us attended her memorial service Monday because she mattered in our lives.

She mattered because we confided in her and leaned on her for support. Debbie was a great ambassador for the school and university, the person perhaps making the “first impression” of each to the broadest range of constituents of anyone in the school.

I would pass Debbie’s desk on the way to THE KITCHEN (her pride and joy) and see evidence of her playing this role as the “face” of the school. That evidence would include students, faculty, administrators, fellow staff members, visitors meeting or chatting with Debbie and displays of cards, flowers, etc. acknowledging gratitude for something she had done.

Debbie was the “go to” staff member for so many important and sensitive jobs in the school. I marveled at how she managed to handle these tasks over and over again with such skill! Who managed the task of scheduling classrooms? Debbie. Who provided staff support for faculty annual performance reviews, faculty tenure and promotion activities, faculty searches, etc? Debbie.

I will always remember this dear lady with great fondness and respect!

  Dr. Lowndes F (Rick) Stephens
Retired faculty, School of Journalism and Mass Communications

Debbie and I shared a love of horses. In grad school here, I used to own an Arabian mare who lived just outside Columbia, and Debbie and I always talked about her . . . As well as Debbie's pursuits in the saddle. She and I agreed with that wise adage, "No hour of life spent in the saddle is ever wasted." She had a lot of good time there. What a wonderful champion of all equine causes, and a friend indeed. Debbie is sorely missed by me and, I know, by our four-legged friends.

  Dr. Shannon Bowen
Associate Professor, Journalism and Mass Communications

I only knew Debbie Garris as "the lady at the middle desk" whenever I navigated the maze of hallways in the J school. I could always count on a cheerful greeting as I passed through her area. But I just watched the lovely video of an ever-smiling woman who exudes warmth and fun and love from every photo and I cried. I wish I had known her better.

  Dr. Patricia Feehan
Associate Professor, Library and Information Science

  Columbia, SC 29208 • 803-777-3244