People stopped into Terry Valai’s office to talk about their problems so frequently that some of her co-workers joked Valai should switch out the chairs for a therapist’s couch.
Valai, assistant to the computer science department’s chair, died in early December in Santa Monica from a brain aneurysm. She was 54.
She was a UCLA alumna in psychology and the computer science chair’s assistant since 2000. She was known for constantly being in motion – biking to work almost every day, managing the workload of multiple people and taking on tasks outside her job description.
Cassandra Franklin, the computer science management services officer, said she thinks Valai was good at making others feel comfortable because her father was a diplomat and moved their family around a lot.
She added the department is creating the Terry Valai Staff Incentive Award in her memory. The award will give future staff an incentive to work beyond their job descriptions in Valai’s name, Franklin said.
Jackie Trang, the electrical engineering manager who hired Valai when she managed the computer science department, said they became friends quickly because of their efficient work patterns and ability to confide in each other.
She added she thinks people felt comfortable talking to Valai about their problems, but that Valai rarely spoke about her own troubles.
“The last few years, she hadn’t been well emotionally, mentally and physically because she took care of her mother by herself and had a full-time job, but you couldn’t tell,” Trang said.
Jens Palsberg, a computer science professor and chair from 2010 to 2015, first met Valai when he interviewed for his job in 2003.
While he was chair, the two were in frequent correspondence about meetings, interviews and other department business, sending about 9,000 emails over his five-year tenure. Valai was such an important part of his life that her number was the only one on his speed dial other than his wife, Palsberg added.
“She was a major reason why I agreed to be chair in the first place,” Palsberg said. “I knew that with her, I had major help in solving problems.”
He added he thinks the department would need to hire two or three people to accomplish the same amount of work she did with the same efficiency.
One of these responsibilities was coordinating with the department’s visitors. Palsberg said Valai would help figure out who they needed to meet, what gifts the department should give them and where they should stay.
“When problems came up that were not any part of anyone’s job description, she would figure them out,” Palsberg said. “Now we’re asking: How do we organize a funeral? How do we get all these people together? It’s ironic because normally she would be the one to take care of that.”
Another one of Valai’s responsibilities was helping Palsberg coordinate the department’s freshman seminar, a lecture series intended to introduce freshmen to the major. She would schedule speakers, update the course website, coordinate teaching assistants and generally act as a co-professor, he said.
“It’s mind-boggling,” Palsberg said. “The work is a lot of sweat and tears, and she made it look easy.”
Trang said she thinks it was difficult for people to know Valai well. In the 16 years she worked as the chair’s assistant, she did not decorate her office with trinkets or traces of her personal life because she was too busy getting things done, Trang said.
“She came in, she logged in and she was working, working, working until she left,” Trang said. “There was no time to clean or decorate.”
Despite her constant attention to work, Valai still found time to build friendships in the department.
Franklin said some graduate students were frequent visitors to Valai’s office, particularly those who shared their heritage with Valai, who was of Iranian descent. She was always welcoming and would speak Farsi with them, she added.
Trang said that even after she moved departments, she and Valai remained close friends. She added she went to Valai for everything, but on the last day she saw her, she said she didn’t want to interrupt a conversation Valai was having in her office when she passed by. It was a decision Trang said she regrets.
“The first night (after her death), I prayed and said, ‘Hey Terry, I’m sorry we didn’t get a chance to say goodbye. If you can hear me, can you come in my dreams just to say goodbye to me?’” Trang said. “And I swear, that night she came in my dreams. She held my hand and we hugged and just smiled – that was it.”
The computer science department is planning to host a memorial in January for Valai, Franklin said.