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Billy Joe Varney, Former Student Union Director, Dies at 80

An award named for Varney is given each year to one outstanding employee with 15 or more years of University service.

President Robert N. Shelton with Billy Joe Varney during the 2010 Staff Awards for Excellence ceremony. (Photo by Robert Walker)

Every year, one University of Arizona employee is honored with the Billy Joe Varney Award for Excellence, presented to an individual with at least 15 consecutive years of employment at the University. The $1,500 prize recognizes their dedicated service to the UA.

On Oct. 11, the man for whom the award is named, and who dedicated three decades of service to the UA, passed away at 80 years old. Varney had been suffering from health problems related to a stroke. A memorial service was held for him on Sunday.  

Varney wore many hats during his career at the University, including that of acting athletic director, vice president for business affairs and director of the Student Union.

“Billy Joe Varney had a tremendous impact on the University. We only need to look at our Student Union to see the kind of hard work and dedication he showed throughout his years at the UA,” said President Robert N. Shelton.

Varney retired as an associate vice president, but that didn't end his legacy at the UA. In addition to the award that bears his name, the Billy Joe Varney Center for Student Involvement and Leadership in the Student Union Memorial Center also pays tribute to his contributions to the University.

Varney, who headed up the Student Union from 1958-1985, was later instrumental in fundraising for the new union and UA BookStore facilities, spearheading a group of retired administrators to help raise money and provide input for the project, said Melissa Vito, vice president for Student Affairs.

Vito, a friend and colleague of Varney's, said he was a part of a generation of campus leaders that saw the UA "grow from a hometown university to an internationally engaged Research 1 university."

A member of the UA Hall of Fame, Varney had a reputation for regularly going above and beyond the call of duty for the University.

"The Billy Joe Varney excellence award was an enormous honor for him and it recognized his quality of always going the extra mile for the University and always making others feel special," Vito said.

He was also known as a dedicated family man.

"He was a big, booming kind of guy, who at the end of the day was really proudest of his family," Vito said. "He and his wife used to play tennis at Catalina High School every weekend well into their 70s. His annual Christmas letter was always funny – he always focused on his family, his travels with the Rotary and the University."

Varney is survived by his wife of 59 years, Sue, and five daughters.

The Billy Joe Varney Award for Excellence is one of four award categories that make up the Staff Awards for Excellence, presented every spring by the Staff Advisory Council, the Appointed Professionals Advisory Council, UA President Robert N. Shelton and the President's Cabinet.

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