Late supervisor continues to teach Air Force, life lessons

  • Published
  • By Chief Master Sgt. Matt Proietti
  • 512th Airlift Wing
The best Air Force boss I've ever had was a Navy brat who never served a day in uniform.

Tracey Schwarze was my civilian supervisor in a reserve airlift wing from 1989 to 1991 when she was in her late 20s. I was five years younger and respected her immediately because she was bright, hardworking and serious about her business: Public Affairs.

Her job was to make sure members of our wing knew what was going on in the unit and to communicate to the local civilian community and news media the role we played in national defense. She did it well by shaping a ramshackle group of part-timers into a professional staff of communicators.

Tracey had already completed a master's degree and worked in two Defense Department jobs by the time she came into our lives. She was slight and bookish, but commanded respect by how she conducted herself and even by the purposeful way she walked around our headquarters building. She seemed as if she was always heading someplace to do something important.

"Even as a girl, she wanted people to know who she was," Tracey's mother, Encie, told me after her daughter's memorial service in October 2010. "She wanted to be noticed."

Our staff worked in one big room together, with our desks in a semicircle around Tracey so she was aware of what was going on at all times. She faced the door to keep an eye on who was visiting us. Though she was a real Southern lady who enjoyed people and loved to host dinner parties, those who stopped by our office to simply shoot the breeze soon found themselves back out in the hall. She had a way of dismissing interlopers by simply asking, "May I help you?"

She was a perfect boss for that place and time in my life. She had high expectations of her staff and was happy to work with us on our skills, but she made it clear that she wasn't going to toil on them harder than we did ourselves. She knew it was impossible to will someone to be a better writer or photographer.

The staff members treasured Tracey. I did at first for a selfish reason: she let me do my job. I was 22 when I started to work for her as editor of the unit's monthly newspaper and she gave me final say as to what appeared in it. My admiration for her quickly grew, though, because of other parts of her nature.

I was the lowest-ranking person in the office and had very little college under my belt, but she had me edit her work. Tracey understood that acknowledging she needed help was a sign of strength, not of weakness. Her openness left a deep impression on me that I've since used in parenting as well as professionally.

She set high standards that we continually met. It went beyond us simply trying to put in an honest day's work. None of us wanted to disappoint her because she believed in us so much.

Tracey shielded us from as many extra duties as she could and, more importantly, she defended our decisions, which was imperative since our work was seen by so many.
She deflected as much criticism from us as she could and, when awards time came and plaques started piling up in our office, she gave her staff all of the credit. Tracey took the time to write detailed performance reports about us and nominated each for medals when warranted. She was our wingman before I'd ever heard that term. She had our backs and we absolutely had hers.

Looking back, it is obvious that we had grown to love her.

Running a small military public affairs office was never going to be enough for Tracey Schwarze. She completed her doctorate by age 31 and started to lecture about English at universities near her then-husband's follow-on assignments. When he drew an assignment to Langley Air Force Base, near her hometown of Norfolk, she joined the staff at Christopher Newport University as a professor and vice provost.

Tracey, whose doctoral dissertation was published as a textbook, could have been an author, but teaching came first for her. Many of her students posted comments about her on websites where college learners can rate their instructors. They describe the friend I knew - tough, but fair. If you were willing to work, she was an ally, maybe even a fan. If you were lazy or a whiner, you just might get the lowest grade of your academic life.

One constant theme in her students' remarks is that she helped them accomplish more than they thought they could. Those sentiments are reflected by the Airmen who had the great fortune to work with her.

"She pushed me well beyond my comfort zone to achievements I never thought possible," said retired Chief Master Sgt. Holly Vogel.

Maj. Andra Higgs, who worked for Tracey as an enlisted man, remembers that she ensured everyone's voice was heard when it came to decision-making.

"I found her approach evolutionary, encouraging and empowering. Her management style continues to influence my professional and personal day-to-day practices," said Higgs, chief of Public Affairs for Fourth Air Force at March Air Reserve Base, Calif.

This summer marks two years since Tracey, 48, died of cancer. We haven't worked for her in two decades but her fingerprints are all over our personal and professional lives.

(Chief Proietti, a reservist with the Air Force Public Affairs Agency at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, is on an active-duty tour with the 512th Airlift Wing)