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January 8, 2009

40-year staffers mark 720 years of Pitt service

The year was 1968. Wesley Posvar was chancellor. Civil rights demonstrations and student activism against the Vietnam War continued on campus.

The new Hillman Library opened its doors and fundraising was underway for a Learning Research and Development Center building. The University Center for International Studies and the Department of Black Studies were established.

On the playing field, the Panthers suffered one of their greatest losses in the Pitt-Penn State rivalry, falling 65-9 in a Nov. 23 game at Pitt Stadium.

Fast forward to 2008. Eighteen of the employees hired in 1968 were among the honorees recognized Dec. 4 as part of the University’s annual long-term staff recognition ceremony and reception.

Whether indoors in labs, offices or libraries, or outdoors tending to the University grounds, the long-time staffers have shared in and contributed to Pitt’s growth. Here, several share their memories.

Rosemary Rinella has spent her entire 40 years in the School of Social Work, making her the school’s longest-serving staffer.

Initially hired as secretary to the dean, she now is assistant to the dean. Widely regarded as the school’s institutional memory, among her official duties are coordinating social work’s annual speaker series and serving as assistant editor of its bi-yearly Bridges magazine. Her Panther pride is evident and reflects the sentiments of many of her fellow long-time staffers. “The University has grown considerably and become a leading academic and research institution. I have cherished my time at the University where I have met many students, faculty, staff and community representatives along the way,” she said.  

Nancy Gilkes, manager of benefits/relationship in Human Resources, is another of the 40-year staffers who have spent their entire career in one department. Her initial job title was senior secretary in what then was Pitt’s personnel department.

Among her initial duties was staffing the personnel committee, which reviewed and approved or denied departments’ staffing requests and which also was in charge of staff classification and salary administration. Other tasks, however, might not seem to be so closely related to personnel duties. At one time preparing and publishing the campus phone directory and even hand addressing the chancellor’s holiday cards fell to the department, she noted.

Gilkes said among the highlights of her daily work is the opportunity to interact with world-class faculty and staff and learn about their professional accomplishments — and now to hear about their children’s as well.

Bobbie Bates started as a clerical aide, pulling class cards and master statistics cards for each student who came into the University Registrar’s office. She now is the office’s records manager, ensuring that historical documents are microfilmed and properly kept and protected offsite. She also assists with athletics’ and veterans’ certification.

Beyond her official duties, she’s sometimes stepped up to tend to fussy babies or entertain small children while their parents conducted their business in the office. “When you work in a student service area, as I have for 40 years, you do all sorts of odd things to aid our students, staff and faculty.”

Among her amusing recollections was installation of the beautiful display case Pitt’s carpenters built to hold the Heisman and Sugar Bowl trophies. It was to be secured in a vault in the Scaife Hall registrar’s office, but when they tried to put it in the vault, escorted by campus police, it wouldn’t fit. They hadn’t measured the doorway to the vault before building the display case.

One change in the University that impresses Bates is the recognition long-term staff now receive. “I worked here for 23 years before anyone thought about acknowledging long-term employees,” she said.

Groundskeeper John Settles started his Pitt career as a custodian in Physical Plant —it wasn’t yet called Facilities Management. Assigned first to Scaife Hall, then a few years later to the new LRDC building, he became acquainted not only with faculty and staff but also with the Falk School students who kept the LRDC building’s third floor lively in a special experimental classroom there.

In 1988 Settles moved to the grounds crew and was welcomed with a bang. Preparing Pitt Stadium’s field and setting up other athletic events were among the grounds crew’s non-landscaping duties.

On his first day on that job, Settles said, he got out of the truck on Sutherland Drive to enter the stadium and promptly was hit by a student pedaling a 10-speed bike down the hill. Knocked unconscious, he was picked up off the street by members of the football team and awoke in Presbyterian Hospital.

Later assigned to duties at the chancellor’s residence, he got a surprise introduction to the Nordenberg family dog when the shepherd pounced on him in the yard. After the unexpectedly abrupt start to the relationship, “the dog got used to me and we became the best of friends,” he said.

Among the biggest changes he recalls over his 40 years are the demolition of Forbes Field and the construction of Mervis Hall and Forbes Quadrangle, now Posvar Hall.

During his time at Pitt, Settles’ interest in landscape design grew. He has had a hand in selecting replacements for the O’Hara Street elm trees that needed to be removed after being attacked by pests. He also has designed landscaping for Scaife Hall and euonymus plantings outside the Cathedral of Learning. The attractiveness of his work on the middle campus has drawn compliments and even brought him customers for his own side business, he said. “People notice things you do even though you think they don’t,” he said.

Gregory Doss also started as a custodian, moved to the grounds crew in 1976 and now is a crew leader. He became an unlikely celebrity in 1988 after Pitt basketball forward Jerome Lane shattered the backboard at Fitzgerald Field House with a famous dunk during a game against Providence College. Someone had to clean up the glass and replace the basket. That someone was Doss.

“I dismantled the basket, took off the clock and the wires,” he said. “I didn’t think anything of it.”

The replacement was touted as the fastest ever — delaying the game by only 32 minutes — and media attention followed. “I even was stopped and asked for my autograph,” Doss said.

A sports lover, he has enjoyed the chance to rub elbows over the years with many Pitt coaches and players. Among the biggest changes he recalls is the demolition of Pitt Stadium and construction of the Petersen Events Center.
Doss plans to retire April 30.

Betty Edwards began as a secretary in the Department of Medicine’s pulmonary division. “It was very frightening at first,” she recalled. “Learning how to type scientific papers and figure out the process for keeping the accounts for our grants was very mind-blowing.”

In 1971 she was recruited to the Division of Infectious Diseases, where she now is office manager. For her, the biggest changes have come thanks to office technologies. She recalls using manual, then electric typewriters. Younger people today think, “Typewriters… what’s that?” She also outlasted onionskin and carbon paper, mimeograph machines and making slides for presentations and transparencies for overhead projectors.

Other advances — the invention of Wite-Out, fax machines and the construction of the walkways that bridge Pitt buildings and UPMC hospitals — all have made her job easier.

Edwards also has a claim to fame — being mentioned in a book written by professor emeritus and retired chair of the Department of Infectious Diseases and Microbiology Monto Ho, for whom she worked from 1971 to 1993. She also wrote a brief tribute recalling her work with Ho when he was honored recently for service to the University.

Edwards said the years have gone by surprisingly fast. “After 40 years, it does not feel like it’s been that long. I really love my job and enjoy working with my co-workers,” she said.

Kenneth Patrene began his career at Pitt as a stackmaster in the brand-new Hillman Library and as a fill-in at several departmental libraries. He now is a research specialist/lab manager in the Department of Medicine’s Division of Hematology/Oncology.

Choosing a career in research has required him to be available to conduct ongoing experiments regardless of the day or the hour but also has enabled him to help master’s and doctoral students with their research projects and has allowed him to collaborate with amazing researchers, he said. Patrene has co-authored several scientific papers, including one that appeared in Science magazine.

The importance of grant funding remains constant, but was more difficult and time consuming in pre-computer days, Patrene recalled. “Racing to the airport to see the submitted grant safely off was not uncommon,” he said.

Among the other changes he’s noted around the University is its growth and expansion, the increasing diversity of students and the addition of many student services. “It almost makes me want to re-enroll for classes after retirement,” he joked.

—Kimberly K. Barlow

Filed under: Feature,Volume 41 Issue 9

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