After Putting Service and UVA Family First for Decades, Cronk Retires from Law School
A Law School institution with a big heart is retiring. Diane Cronk, who has served as a faculty secretary for more than 26 years — and unofficially as a community organizer and leader of support staff — will leave her job Dec. 21.
"It's going to be very hard walking out of here on the 21st," Cronk said from her office, surrounded by photographs and mementos she has collected over the years.
In her time at Virginia, Cronk has seen the school grow from being housed solely in Withers-Brown Hall, when Slaughter Hall was home to the Darden School of Business, to facilities that have more than doubled in size. She also worked with some of UVA Law's most well-known professors and visiting teachers, including Charles Goetz, Pamela Karlan (now at Stanford Law School), William Stuntz, Bob O'Neill (also a former UVA president) and Richard Lillich — not to mention a visiting British lord and Park Dietz, a former UVA law and behavioral medicine and psychiatry professor who served as a forensic consultant on the John Hinckley Jr., Unabomber and Jeffrey Dahmer cases.
"They've all been kind of special in their own way," Cronk said. "It's one of those things where you want to strangle them one day but you still love them, like your family. That's one reason why I've stayed as long as I have."
One of her favorite memories is the last day of Professor Tom Bergin, "probably one of the most beloved professors that has ever been here," she said. Both sides of the entire first floor of Withers-Brown Hall were lined with students as he walked from one end of the hall to the elevator at the other end after his final class.
"It was amazing to see just how many of them thought the world of him," she said. And Cronk did too. She still visits Bergin, now in a local senior home, once a month and takes him out to lunch or brings him pizza.
One of Cronk's current professors, George Rutherglen, said this is typical of Cronk.
"She's the first person to set up a collection or comfort someone when they've had a loss," he said. "She pretends to have a gruff exterior, but she has a heart of gold."
Cronk joined the school's staff in 1986, after working briefly for UVA's personnel office. A native of Philadelphia, she moved to the area because her husband, local artist Bob Cronk, had family here.
Cronk said the school was known for being family-oriented, perhaps in part because of the tight quarters. Her daily work was similar to today's — but secretaries worked with word processors and hand-written pink slips for phone messages. The Law School's reception desk and staff lounge were located where the faculty mailboxes are today, on the third floor of Withers-Brown Hall.
Much of her work involved typing correspondence or scholarly works for professors accustomed to writing by hand.
The Law School "went through legal paper like you would not believe," she said.
Cronk said she especially liked helping professors with recommendation letters for students who apply for clerkships.
"I feel like I'm helping [students] get out there to get a job," she said.
Cronk said she was proud of the work she's accomplished in her own life. Though she worked full-time at the Law School throughout the last few decades, in her first 13 years she also worked as a waitress.
"It doesn't matter what your job is. You need to take pride in it," she said. "I think that's what kept me going so long. That's the way I was raised."
Cronk's parents both worked hard — her mother worked at a supermarket, and her father drove a truck. But Cronk also faced a tragedy early in her life that shaped her ethic of service. Her fiancé died in Vietnam.
"I saw how the other soldiers were treated when they came home. I never wanted them to be treated like that," she said. "There was never any help for them. That kind of got me started in doing what I can, when I can."
Cronk gives back now through visiting soldiers at the Defense Veteran Brain Injury Center in Charlottesville every other week. Soldiers at the center, who usually are recovering from traumatic brain injuries or post-traumatic stress syndrome sustained in Afghanistan and Iraq, often stay for 3-6 months as they recover.
She visited every week until she helped drum up more volunteers.
"It was only me that was going over, and through word of mouth we now have between 10 and 15 visitors on a Tuesday night," she said. "We take pizzas over, just visit with them, watch TV with them, chit-chat — whatever they want to do."
Cronk's skills at organizing service projects have also come into play at work. She has long helped coordinate Law School staff to volunteer for Habitat for Humanity and the March of Dimes. She's also often the first to suggest a collection for staff members who are retiring or facing a particularly tough time.
"I don't have a whole lot, but I know there's people out there who have less than me," she said. "I've never really had the money to walk up and help somebody, but I can give them my time."
Cronk said she hopes to use some of that time she will gain in retirement to get involved in the Wounded Warrior Project and return to volunteer work with Habitat for Humanity as well. Other than that, she plans to spend more time with her husband and two sons, Bobby and Eric.
"It will be nice to be able to spend time together — going fishing, doing some traveling and just being able to relax," Cronk said. "My husband's been retired for two years, so I guess I'll go home and shake his world up a little bit."