The Lasting Impact of a Departmental Secretary

Paula M. Krebs considers how a woman educated professors about issues of class and power -- while helping all who relied on her.

November 12, 2007

When the e-mail finally arrived, the faculty in my building had been anticipating it for a couple of weeks. That didn’t lessen the sting. “Marilyn’s gone” was the subject line, and we began, officially, to mourn the secretary (her word) who had anchored the professional lives of more than two dozen faculty in language and literature for well beyond the 15 years I’ve been at the institution.

I don’t want to sentimentalize the position of the faculty secretary, to romanticize the bond between privileged, mostly tenured faculty and less privileged staff, who serve at the pleasure of the institution. Marilyn Todesco was the last one to sugarcoat the class politics of college employment. She was keenly aware of the power dynamics of the college on whose campus she had grown up as a faculty member’s daughter. Indeed, she inspired, even pushed me both to write an article on faculty-staff relations and to commission what turned out to be an extremely powerful article about the issue for the American Association of University Professors' magazine, Academe (which I edit), in September 2006.

Although we don’t have any unions on campus, Marilyn kept an eye on the labor politics of the institution as a whole. She saw how important it was for workers to be organized, and she promoted the importance of the Staff Association, even though it didn’t have collective bargaining. When a couple of the faculty members in her building were appointed to a benefits review committee, she checked in regularly with us to keep up to date on the committee’s progress and to push us to advocate for better benefits for the staff. She held our feet to the fire; she made us understand that the faculty on campus had power that the staff did not have, and that we were obliged to think about all employees of the college when we made our decisions. She helped us to think about options for short-term disability policies for staff and made sure we pushed them through, however long it took. That we took up that or any staff cause at Marilyn’s instigation was not noblesse oblige on our part – it was worker solidarity. We recognized, under her tuition, that a small college is a community and that it’s the workers who hold it together. Faculty workers and staff workers.

Mourning is always self-indulgent, and this reflection is perhaps especially so. My relationship to Marilyn was especially important to me because class is central to how I see myself. I will miss our discussions of labor issues and their significance in our lives because I always felt that Marilyn understood me as the working-class kid I try to keep alive inside my upper-middle-class life. Others will, of course, mourn other aspects of Marilyn, and there were many facets to that generous woman. In her campus memorial service, many people spoke of her sweetness and warmth. But what I mourn most is Marilyn’s toughness as a worker. She pretended to worry about being too outspoken about the benefits package or employment conditions, but she never self-censored, whether in open meeting or private conversation. Not whining or grumbling – she brought well-developed critiques to the table. That’s because she loved working here, really believed in the place and its people. That love went hand in hand with firm, strong notions about what was fair.

Marilyn understood both labor politics and interpersonal relations, but she never grew angry or bitter – her analysis of class dynamics, gender dynamics, and power in general always moved her to positive action, whether it was on the campus’s Staff Council or in one-one-one conversations. Not that she things didn’t get to her: she bristled at occasions on which people treated her or, more often, faculty or staff members she cared about, disrespectfully. She had a fund of righteous anger, but she never let it get in the way of anyone’s work, especially her own. I learned from her to keep in mind that I have to work with the folks on my campus for my whole career (if I’m lucky), and that work goes better when we all talk to each other.

Marilyn was interested in everything, from a grant proposal to a teaching dilemma, to vacation plans. She was that rare mix of a hard worker and a great talker and listener. The work never pushed aside the conversation, but the conversation never seemed to get in the way of the work, either. And, of course, much of the conversation was the work – how should we put together materials for this tenure case, what information should we gather on student evaluations, where are we going to put that new part-timer?

It wasn’t only faculty who worked closely with Marilyn. Student workers loved her. She treated them with respect and concern, and they returned the favor. She wasn’t simply a maternal figure; she served as a boss and a mentor to them, helping them to see themselves as future professionals, keeping track of their progress. Some came home with her to babysit her granddaughter; most stayed in touch long after graduation.

Every random, lost, or depressed student who wandered into Marilyn’s office seeking a box of tissues left feeling that it was someplace safe. My colleague, the poet Sue Standing, said that Marilyn’s office was the hearth of our building. That’s why we need poets. It’s why we need elegies – to put language, to put structure to the everyday and yet extraordinarily powerful experience of the death of someone to whom you have grown close.

In notifying us of Marilyn’s death, much too young, of cancer, my department chair, Mike Drout, noted that Marilyn’s husband had told him "only her family was more important to her than her professors." Every single one of us – teachers of English, French, German, and Spanish — believed that already. She made us believe it, and we were the better for it.


Paula M. Krebs is a professor of English at Wheaton College, in Massachusetts.


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