In May of 2023, Wendy Paulsen retired from UGA, stepping down from her long-time position as office manager of the River Basin Center.
For Wendy Paulsen, there is one final unsolved mystery from her storied career—the case of the missing animal plant figurines.
During her tenure as office manager for the River Basin Center and Odum School of Ecology, she grew plants at the front desk where she worked. She outfitted her pots with hanging animal decorations.
But they began to go missing overnight and would reappear throughout the River Basin Center building, on the coffee maker or some nook. She had several prime suspects for the thief, but no one ever confessed.
That kind of playfulness was normal, Paulsen explained.
“I loved it,” she said. “I loved sitting at the front desk, and saying good morning to all students as they came in. And then when they were getting their coffee, they would stand around the desk and they would talk to me. That’s what I really loved.”
“Wendy didn’t just keep the RBC running; she made it an office people enjoyed coming into every day,” said Seth Wenger, Director of Science for the Center. “Her retirement was definitely bittersweet; we’re all happy for her but we sure miss having her here!”
She’d throw darts with the graduate students in the back of the RBC and kept up-to-date with their research and life. At the end of each semester, Paulsen orchestrated a holiday party.
“We used to have so much fun,” she said. There was a white elephant gift exchange and people brought in their family Christmas cookies.
But her administrative work wasn’t all easy—she applied her expertise to managing the logistics of the center, booking travel, pitching in with financial management, planning workshops, coordinating catering and running event registration.
When she arrived, too, the building had a rat infestation, and she made it her mission to remedy it.
“Once something really gets in my paw, I don’t give up,” she said.
She doggedly insisted on help from exterminators and the Facilities Management Division and made a name for herself doing it—the Rat Lady.
One day, months after the situation was resolved, she was chatting with a colleague in the Ecology Building, when operations and maintenance men caught sight of her: “They said, ‘There’s Wendy! The Rat Lady!’”
It was a term of endearment, and the group caught up about life and children born in the months since they’d seen each other last.
Before the RBC
The story of Wendy Paulsen’s career is one of resilience.
She faced prejudice in her early career and illness prior to her retirement this spring. In between, she made the most of jobs that called on a range of skill sets.
She came to the River Basin Center in 2015 with some science background—for years, she’d worked in New Jersey recruiting schools to a National Science Foundation grant meant to revitalize their math and science programs for K-8 schools.
Decades before, she and her husband Peter Paulsen met in art school in Chicago. They’ve now been married 48 years. She was puzzling through how to find the vanishing point for a project when he noticed and helped her.
Though she’d originally hoped to break into marketing as a fashion illustrator—only seven artists drew for major retailers like Macy’s and Lord & Taylor at the time—after earning her Associate of Arts, she landed a role as a management trainee for an advertising department with Santa Fe Railway.
“On my first day, I went into the boardroom and there were seven to nine men in there and they said, ‘This is Wendy Burnett, and we hired her because HR said we had to hire a woman,’” shared Paulsen.
This comment foreshadowed her whole experience there. The team wasn’t entirely sure what to assign her and gave her all the tasks they perceived as feminine, like stopping by the store to select neckties for the executives of Santa Fe Industries and scarves for their wives when they were in town.
When the couple moved to Michigan briefly, no one would give her a job in her field. There were two marketing agencies in town, and with her husband employed at the one, the other refused to hire Paulsen and make her his competitor. So she worked as a switchboard operator until they returned to Chicago, where she worked as a business forms designer and promoted to methods and procedures analyst for More Business Forms, streamlining business forms for entire regions of the U.S.
She took five years off to have two children, after which she and her husband started the first desktop printing business in Chicago. When that ended, he took a job with their largest client, and she began balancing a jewelry business with part time work at a bank before a stint in HR.
Her husband was then relocated to the Princeton area of New Jersey. That was where she gained the bulk of her administrative experience in the science field, recruiting for the NSF grant, before her daughter and grandchildren’s relocation eventually drew her to Athens.
Since extended leave and retirement, two new grandchildren have been born in Paulsen’s family. She now has a total of four, who call her Winnie and keep her busy.
The Athens crew conducted a pinewood derby for the 4th of July, and—not one to falsely go easy on the kids—Paulsen won 10 out of 10 races.
Various volunteer roles also keep her active.
Two years after a 2016 Parkinson’s disease diagnosis, she founded Just Like You — PD Women. Out of that group grew Parkinson’s Disease Sisters in Athens, a support group for women living with the disease that’s now completely supported by Georgia’s chapter of the Parkinson’s Foundation.
Paulsen realized women like her didn’t have a forum to meet, swap research and share experiences. They now get together about once a month for lunch, often at the Piedmont Health Campus. She and a few partners raised over $3,000 for the Parkinson Foundation’s Movement Day—for which she called on her past sales experience.
She’s also returned to her artwork in retirement, with a focus on birdhouses and cards, on which she hand paints or draws designs and prints encouraging messages.
And her granddaughter has taken up her jewelry-making mantle, designing pieces and teaching the girls in her Sunday school how to bead necklaces.
“It’s so special that she’s passing on her grandmother’s art form,” said Paulsen.
And throughout retirement, she hopes to stay connected to the River Basin Center community and the friends she made here. She’s already visited former director of policy Laurie Fowler several times.
“The RBC sort of became a home. That’s what I tried to make it,” said Paulsen.