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Ruth Williams is a collections specialist at the University of Montana – as in, collecting money from students and families.

You might think those students and parents don't really like hearing from Williams, who has been at UM 10 years as of July 4, 2016. But that isn't the truth at all.

"Collecting is tricky," Williams said last week. "People aren't wanting to give you their money. I've had dads say, 'You know what? I really didn't want to pay this bill, but you've sure made it easy. This is the most fun I've had paying a debt.' Because we chat and we laugh and you just get on a different level with these folks.

"Life is difficult as it is without dealing with somebody cranky on the other end."

Williams got a culinary degree from Missoula College in 1994, and before coming to UM, she tended bar, cooked at Diamond Jim's and the DoubleTree, dished up meals for Kappa Kappa Gamma students and catered for Bob Zimorino.

Then, she got on as a caterer for the university and landed in former UM President George Dennison's kitchen before she even met him. She greeted him when he walked in the door to his own house.

"Hey, George. How was your day?"

Dennison had no idea who she was, she said, but he told her he'd had a pretty good day.

After a couple years, UM cut her catering job and sent her to Business Services, where director John McCormick wondered how in the world an employee with food service on her resume would adapt to a job in collections.

"What skills do you possibly have?" McCormick said to himself at the time.

Since then, Williams has not only proven herself in Business Services, she got a nod this fall from President Royce Engstrom in his State of the University Address. Engstrom said UM needed to pick up its customer service game, and he pointed to Williams as the one setting the pace.

"It comes as no surprise to me that she is so willing to reach out and help individual students and parents," Engstrom said last week. "I deeply appreciate what she's done."

And McCormick, who once wondered how Williams would help his department, warned off the Missoulian from poaching her: "I won't let you take her, but Ruth would be your best employee."

***

Robert Luke is one of those parents who might have been hopping mad at UM and, he admitted, thrown a temper tantrum over the phone.

His son attends UM, he received a partial scholarship, and the money got all mixed up last spring. The imbroglio involved a reimbursement that shouldn't have been returned, a wrong address and a surprise bill for $2,000 to Luke, who has four children and their other bills.

"I'm a policeman. I don't have $2,000 lying around," Luke said.

He called, got the runaround, eventually got Williams, and he was prepared to make a stink.

"You know what? I like confrontation. I've been a cop for 32 years," he said.

In other words, he's good at it, and he knows how to win. (In one hard neighborhood, residents have put his face on T-shirts because he, too, understands customer service.) 

Instead of fighting with him and demanding his money, though, Williams listened – truly listened, he said. Then, she figured out exactly what had happened with his case, and she explained it to him step by step.

As it turned out, he did owe that $2,000, and because Williams helped him clearly understand the matter, he paid it. In fact, he paid it happily.

"She actually disarmed me," he said.

A couple weeks later, Williams called to check in on Luke again, and he believes she deserves a gold watch or tickets to Hawaii.

***

Williams knows the office wasn't clear on how she'd make the transition from food to collections, but her philosophy is that customer service is customer service, wherever you go.

"I treat 'em like they're my dear friend," said Williams, tearing up. "These kids are in a funky space, you know, when that stuff happens. And honestly, if it was my kid, I would really like to know that someone was going to give them a warm fuzzy instead of an ugly."

She talks to hundreds of students and parents a week, sometimes kids who are falling apart and in tears about their bills – or other problems.

"I can't tell you how many kids I've had just cry in my arms," Williams said.

She gives them a hug, gets her shoulder soaked, and makes the phone calls that straighten out their problems.

"I get flowers and I get wine and I get candy," Williams said.

One international student brought her a bracelet and a string of fresh almonds and dried apricots. Williams loved the bracelet, but she wasn't sure what to do with the present of nuts and fruit.

"I go, 'Honey, what am I doing with this?' She goes, 'Well, you eat it.' I said, 'I can do that.'"

***

The eight or nine staff in McCormick's office don't only help resolve financial problems and navigate federal regulations, they attend to matters that students find pressing, he said.

Maybe a roommate's boyfriend is staying in the dorm room too late.

Maybe someone couldn't get their Griz tickets.

Maybe they have a big life decision to make.

The regulations around financial aid have grown strict, and students need to pass 70 percent of their courses, McCormick said. The hardest conversations take place when students have to choose between a grade and financial aid, and Business Services employees help them make the call, he said.

"That is probably the most difficult discussion that any of them have to have with somebody," McCormick said.

***

Now, he's seen the benefit of her catering background, since Williams keeps an apron in her desk and runs office parties: "She's a really good cook."

Williams has become a student advocate, so other offices now ask for her help if a student has a particularly tangled knot to unravel.

"If it's really funky, they send them to me," Williams said.

The students and parents are grateful, and above her desk, Williams keeps postcards they send her from all over the world.

From the Philippines: "I completed (barely) a two-day hike through the jungle and into the rice terraces. It was so, so steep! Not for those afraid of heights. Say hi to Missoula for me!"

From Mexico: "Thanks again for your help with the financial aid office. The trip has been great. Mexico is a diverse and interesting place. Hope to see you at a Three-Eared Dog show in the future."

From Peru: "After a month of research in Andahuaylas, Peru, studying dental metrics ... I am off to Cuzco to climb Machu Pichu and drink more Pisco! I cannot wait to return to Montana in the summer ... and tell you all about it."

From Honduras: "Thank you so very much for helping me out with the tax forms and fielding calls from my dad. (Sorry!)"

The student in Peru had her debit card shut down, and she didn't have access to her funds to pay her bill. Williams helped her work through it.

Plenty of times, a student hands over a cellphone live with a parent on the other end, and Williams grabs the phone, gets on the line and sends the student to class.

"Honey, go to school. Me and your pops got it."

***

When Williams walks across campus, she greets a ton of people, and jokes that she's a legend in her own mind. Really, though, she's interested not in herself, but in others: the students and their challenges.

"They're really good kids, and they just really struggle sometimes, and they need somebody that's going to mom the (heck) out of them," she said.

She never had kids of her own, so she's adopted the ones on campus. Truth be told, she moms her coworkers as well. She believes she's where she needs to be, a place where she can have a positive influence on people.

When she isn't talking with students, she listens to the blues. Or Metallica or Eminem or country. She sings along, too.

"One of my coworkers is like, 'Why are you singing all the time?' I'm like, 'Why aren't you?' I'm having fun, and I love it."

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University of Montana, higher education