People and Community Research

Honoring a parent and a generation of immigrants

Reggie de Villiers and his older brother, Richard, grew up in and around the Richter Library, where their mother worked for 46 years. His gift to create an archives management endowment pays tribute to her and the other Cuban immigrant women who found work—and family—in the University Libraries.
UM Libraries

Reggie, left, and Richard de Villiers with their mother, Mercedes, who worked at the Otto G. Richter Library for 46 years.

Growing up, most children remember playing outside with their friends or going to the playground, but for brothers Reggie and Richard de Villiers, their playground in the early 1980s was the Otto G. Richter Library on the University of Miami’s Coral Gables Campus.

“Our parents and our aunt came to Miami from Cuba with nothing and with no other family, so when we were in grade school, there was limited money for after-school care and no other family members to look after us because both our parents had to work,” said Reggie de Villiers.

“Fortunately for us, our mother, Mercedes, was part of a group of Cuban women hired by the University in the mid-1960s to work in the library. She worked in the cataloging department while our aunt worked in the binding department. It’s a job my mother held for 46 years before retiring at age 81. Unfortunately, she passed away two years later,” he said.

Gladys Gomez-Rossie was part of that same group of Cuban women. She has been at the library ever since, marking 56 years in May. “It was a time period that the University was opening its doors and offering jobs to those arriving from Cuba in the 1960s,” said Gomez-Rossie. “It just so happened that many of the Cuban women ended up in the library, and then they would tell their friends, and they would get jobs, and it just grew and grew. We were all in a new country, without our family, so our co-workers at the library became our family. And we looked out for one another and especially for Mercy and her boys.”

Mercedes de Villiers with Gladys Gomez Rossie
Mercedes de Villiers with Gladys Gomez-Rossie.

The young children would show up at the library every day after school, do their homework, and then hang around until their mom finished work. Even though she instilled the golden rule in them, it didn’t always work out so well.

“We tried to be respectful because my mother drummed into us how lucky we were to have a place to go after school, but in the end, we were boys and occasionally prone to mischief,” recalled Richard de Villiers, who is the older brother by three years. “We were the only little kids running around the library. I can remember sailing our handmade paper boats in the fountain inside the library at the time. We grew up at that library. We lived two blocks from the University, so it literally became our whole world. We even learned to swim at the University pool.”

Their connection as youngsters didn’t end there; the two would eventually take advantage of the tuition remission benefits for employees and get their degrees from the University—Reggie in finance and Richard in political science.

Reggie has gone on to a career in investment banking, while Richard has enjoyed a long tenure working for Miami-Dade County at PortMiami. But despite their success, neither has ever forgotten their library roots, and now they are paying it forward.

“My mother left her family behind in Cuba, so the Richter library became her family,” said Reggie. “She was part of an extraordinary generation of Cuban women who made such a difference at the library that I wanted to find a way to honor their contributions.”

Reggie made a generous gift to create the University Libraries Archives Management Endowment. It will support a processing archivist position in the Manuscripts and Archives Management Department to primarily work with the library’s Cuban Heritage Collection (CHC). One of the world’s largest repositories of Cuban culture, the CHC was established by the same generation of extraordinary Cuban women.  

“Reggie de Villiers’ gift honors not just his mother, Mercedes de Villiers, but in fact the dedication and professionalism of an entire generation of Cuban Americans,” said Charles Eckman, dean and University librarian. “Their work across the libraries in the acquisition, cataloging, access services, reference, preservation, and other departments was an important contributor to the University of Miami Libraries’ emergence as a major research library during the 1970s and 1980s.”

In recognition of the gift, the colonnade in the library will be named the Mercedes V. de Villiers Colonnade. In addition, a plaque will be installed in the library that pays tribute to the legacy of this extraordinary group of women. “My brother and I owe everything we are to our parents, and this gift ties in to why we are here and able to give back to the University and the library that made us who we are today,” said Richard. 

Reggie currently serves as a member and incoming chair of the Dean’s Advisory Council, which he said defies imagination. “I would never imagine as a little kid running around the library that I would one day be back advising the dean of the library and playing a role in this way,” he said. “It is truly remarkable. From even before we were born to this very day, the University and the Richter Library have touched every single facet of our lives.”