Mary Papke is never without a good book.
She reads while she’s curled up on the couch at home, while she’s eating lunch in the dining room at Thompson-Boling Arena, whenever she can take a quick break from work.
Director of Ready for the World: The International and Intercultural Initiative, Papke has been a book lover nearly all of her life.
Perhaps, she said, that’s because "everything in my life has been an incredible story."
Papke was born in Galesburg, Ill. Her parents were Polish immigrants.
Her father, now 91, led a Polish army company that was captured during World War II and sent into forced labor. They vowed they’d all survive and with each other’s help, they did. After they were freed, the soldiers in her father’s company — so grateful to Papke’s dad for his inspirational leadership — melted down their gold jewelry to make a special inscribed ring for him.
Meanwhile, Papke’s mother spent years in Ravensbruck, a concentration camp.
After her parents were liberated, both went to work on a U.S. Air Force base in Germany, where they met and married. Papke keeps a photograph from their wedding.
Papke was born nine months after her parents arrived in America.
Her father — who had been studying to be a forester in Poland — got a job as a janitor at a dairy. Over the years, he worked his way up to owner, and the business became hugely successful
"It bottled milk and made ice cream — the best ice cream in the world. My father is just a really hard worker," she said. "He’s a total American success story."
As she grew up, Papke’s mother — now deceased — spoke to her in Polish, but insisted Mary speak English.
"I helped teach my mother how to speak English," she said. To this day, Papke said, she can understand Polish, but she can’t speak it.
Papke’s parents also urged their children to get an education.
"My father was very philosophical, and we would have long talks. He was a great supporter of the arts, especially literature and classical music.
Papke said her upbringing instilled in her a strong work ethic, a love of learning and an appreciation for diversity.
Papke earned her bachelor’s degree in English literature at the University of Illinois. She completed her master’s degree and doctorate in English literature at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec.
Having grown up in the 1970s with the rise of feminism, Papke developed an interest in women’s studies. As she went through college, she realized her coursework included very few books written by women.
"I thought that was a real loss," she said. "So I taught the first course at McGill on women authors."
After finishing her doctorate, she spent about five years teaching at Illinois State University and came to UT in 1985.
Although working in administration wasn’t her goal, Papke seized the opportunity to become special assistant to former Chancellor Loren Crabtree in 2004.
One of her first projects was launching the Life of the Mind program.
Each year a committee of faculty, staff and students choose a book for all incoming freshmen to read during the summer before they arrive on campus. The idea of the program is for all first-year students to read and discuss a common book as part of "Welcome Week" academic orientation. This year’s book was Norman Cantor’s "In the Wake of the Plague: The Black Death & the World It Made"; next year’s book is "A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier," by Ishmael Beah.
Around the same time, at a chancellor’s retreat, UTK administrators set a goal for increasing international and intercultural education. The Ready for the World initiative played a big role in the university’s SACS reaccreditation process in 2005.
Papke was instrumental in the effort from the start, and now serves as its director.
Ready for the World seeks to increase the diversity among students, faculty and staff; encourage faculty to incorporate international and intercultural aspects in all of their courses; infuse such principles into the core curriculum; expand study-abroad and work-study opportunities; and encourage students to take advantage of all of these opportunities.
Though books and teaching will always be her first loves, Papke said she’s enjoyed this new chapter of her career story.
"I’m very committed to interculturalism," she said, "because I’ve lived it."
Papke has been married to Allen Dunn, an English professor and director of the English graduate program at UT, for 21 years. They met in a reading group at Illinois State University while they were both instructors there. They share their home with a cat named Mina. From a shelter, Mina is "cross-eyed, fuzzy and cute as all get-out."