Remembering Dean Surbey

June 29, 2022
Vanda Hudson, Dean Surbey, and Erin Cahill

Vanda Hudson, Dean Surbey, and Erin Cahill posing during a tour of the new R. Randall Rollins Building.

Recently, the Rollins School of Public Health lost one of its shining stars and long-standing champions in P. Dean Surbey. Surbey worked as executive associate dean for administration and finance at Rollins, and joined the school nearly 27 years ago when the school was still in its infancy and James W. Curran was beginning his role as dean. 

Surbey was born on January 17, 1955, in East St. Louis, Illinois, to a minister father and homemaker mother. He played the piano during funerals at his father’s church and was an exceptional student, graduating third in his high school class of 1,000. After graduating from Washington University and the University of Minnesota, Surbey began his career at University of Minnesota’s Department of Physiological Hygiene before joining Rollins in 1995.

Surbey’s death on May 28, 2022, occurred a mere month away from his retirement. Rollins kept the date of his retirement party and instead held a celebration of life event in its place on June 23. Due to Surbey’s tremendous impact and popularity, the event was moved to the auditorium and numbered over 200 with more people joining by livestream. As his ex-wife and best friend, Marilyn Surbey, articulated during the ceremony, Surbey will be remembered as a true original.

A Champion for Staff 

“Dean both changed and saved my life,” recalls Vanda Hudson, senior director of the Department of Fulfillment Services. Prior to her current role, Hudson served as Surbey’s personal assistant for more than 10 years. Through Surbey’s mentorship and guidance, Hudson developed not only professional and leadership skills, but a strong sense of self.

“In my lifetime, I’ve had three big cheerleaders: my mom, my grandma, and Dean. Dean made me believe I was his VIP. If I walked across the street and didn't fall down, he’d celebrate,” says Hudson. “He made me feel like I could do anything.”  

Hudson isn’t alone in her assessment. Erin Cahill, manager of Fulfillment Services and the school’s COVID-19 liaison, joined Surbey as his personal assistant when Hudson moved into her director role. When she recalls the type of person Surbey was and the relationship they enjoyed, she notes Surbey’s big personality and genuine concern for others.

“He just had this magnetic personality that was incredible. He could walk into a room of strangers and they would know him by the time he left,” says Cahill. “He genuinely loved Rollins and truly cared about everyone. I respected him so much as a boss. He was a genius and treated people with so much kindness.”

Phyllis Peninger, director of administration and finance, worked directly for Surbey for 25 years at Rollins. Peninger says she was profoundly impacted by Surbey’s friendship, leadership, and vision. “He forced us to think outside of the box. He was very forward thinking and he expected the best out of us. We worked hard, but we laughed a lot.”

Peninger has felt compelled to pass along a touch of Surbey’s generosity during her various interactions with strangers.  “Dean loved Starbucks. Recently, I bought someone else’s order in the drive-through in honor of Dean. I’ll probably do the same thing at Taqueria del Sol soon (one of his favorite spots). I thought paying it forward is something he might do. He was a kind and thoughtful person.”

Hudson, Cahill, and Peninger all recall that Surbey provided them with a sense of empowerment and served as a mentor, advocate, and friend throughout the course of their careers. “He always saw that I was capable. He had so much faith in me,” says Hudson. “He made sure I knew I had a seat at the table.”

A Passion for Rollins 

Surbey can be credited for a number of major achievements during his time at Rollins, including: managing the construction projects for the Claudia Nance Rollins, Grace Crum Rollins, and R. Randall Rollins Buildings; developing several of the school’s programs, offices, processes, and policies; keeping the school in the black for 27 years; and leading, mentoring, and overseeing the school’s service units.

A trailblazer and a passionate advocate for the school’s staff, Surbey’s impact was certainly one that was notable in the programs, initiatives, and offices he launched, but it was also felt in smaller—and perhaps, more meaningful—ways. He remembered birthdays and personal milestones. He asked about people’s spouses, children, grandchildren, and hobbies. He gifted his staff with purses, massages, pedicures, and taco lunches. He was more than a boss or a colleague. For many, he was family.

“We saw each other’s kids grow up,” says Peninger. “When I first learned I was pregnant with both of my kids, Dean was one of the first people I told. I trusted him so much and with his background in early childhood education, he helped me select a daycare for my kids.” 

Hudson’s entire family knew and loved Surbey. “He was with me at my first graduation when I got my associate’s degree. I met his dad when I first started at Emory at a family dinner,” she recalls. “Later, he was my man of honor at my third wedding and helped me get ready on my wedding day.”

Cahill recalls a memorable afternoon where two of her favorite people—Surbey and her mother—finally got to meet during an outing to Treat Your Feet. “My mom felt good knowing I was working for someone like him. Someone who cared about me.”

Work was a big part of Surbey’s life, but it was not the only way he derived meaning. An involved and invested father and grandfather, he recognized the struggle for achieving work-life balance in his coworkers and reports and facilitated teleworking options for several staff members whose roles were conducive to remote work several years before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. 

“He had a lot of foresight into helping people be flexible,” says Peninger. “I think that’s because both he and Marilyn were working parents who were very invested in their kids’ lives. They were room parents at their kids’ schools. He sewed all of his kids’ costumes over the years.  He knew what comes with juggling family and work life.”

A Love for Life 

Outside of work, Surbey loved shopping and fashion. Always impeccably dressed, Hudson notes that he owned about 100 pairs of glasses, and likely 1,000 watches. An avid traveler, Surbey had a deep fondness for people and enjoyed interacting with new cultures and foods. His favorite destinations were New York (where he could see Broadway plays), Venice, Greece, and Florida. He was planning to visit Alaska at the time of his death.

"Dean loved Rollins," says Hudson. "He wanted us to be excellent and to work in the spirit of excellence. He dreamed big for the school and when you walk around here, you see this really is the house that Dean built. I’m honored to be continuing his legacy.”

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