I’m getting a little tired of retirement receptions.
It’s not the gatherings themselves, or the food, which is delicious, or the speeches honoring the people, who certainly deserve these celebrations and more. It’s the saying goodbye I don’t like. And the aftermath—empty spaces where friends once worked. Quiet where computers once clacked or radios played and conversations popped up and laughter carried up the stairs.
I don’t like goodbyes. I’m not good at them. But we’ve had seven of them already this semester and we’re just getting started.
So I wasn’t much looking forward to Carolyn Harshbarger’s reception last week in the Caleb Mills House.
Then she started telling stories.
About her first day at Wabash 26 years ago, after running “a one-gal office at a local pole barn building establishment,” when then-Director of Development Dick Ristine ’41 met her at the top of the stairs and said in his powerful baritone, “I am glad you’re here—here is where your coat goes, and I have these tapes for you [to transcribe].” Right to work—a foreshadowing of Carolyn’s workload for the next 26 years (actually, considering that one December spent processing annual fund and campaign pledges equal a full year’s work, that should be 36 years.)
We found out Carolyn was pretty self-conscious in those days.
“I find the Dictaphone, load the tape, put the headphones on, and start typing,” she recalled. “Once I need to rewind the tape, so I take my headphones off and notice that Kane House is suddenly extremely quiet. I’m thinking, Oh no, they are all listening to me type!”
She mentioned that she’d had 14 bosses signing her paycheck over the two-and-a-half decades, adding that “anyone who has made a donation to the College over the past 26 years should also be counted as a ‘boss.’”
But my favorite story concerned her legendary mastery of the Hays Alumni Center fax machine.
It was back when many of us had yet to figure the thing out. Her co-worker Michele Tatar was trying to send a fax and was struggling with the machine. Carolyn came to her rescue, even though she’d never sent a fax herself. How hard could it be, Carolyn thought.
So Michele explained the steps, Carolyn dialed the number as instructed—simple enough—but they were surprised to hear a voice coming from the machine.
“Hello?” Carolyn yelled into the paper feeder of the fax machine like it was a telephone receiver. “Hello? Yes, I would like to send a fax.”
The machine didn’t seem to be listening.
“Oh crap—another crank call,” the voice from one-way speaker on the machine said before it went silent. Carolyn and Michele ran away, laughing, to get help.
“You didn’t really speak into the machine, did you?” my colleague Karen Handley had asked Carolyn when they arrived at her door. But she had.
For years after that, whenever we got a new office machine in Hays or Kane and Carolyn was around, someone would bring up that story. Invariably, someone would approach the new machine and speak into it.
“Hello? Yes, I’d like to send a fax.”
“Hello? Yes, I’d like to make a copy.”
“Hello? Yes, I’d like to shred a document.”
At her reception last week, Carolyn didn’t mention the millions of dollars of gifts she’s processed to keep this place running (although Dean Joe Emmick did—more than 75,000 pledges and over 100 million dollars worth!) or even the hours of overtime she worked every December. She’s had some of the best ideas about how to get things done around here, but she’s always tried to keep a low profile about most everything except NASCAR drivers.
And she’s loathe to speak in public. She’s had to sit through 26 years of speeches, presentations, and reports during her Wabash career, but I can’t recall hearing her speak to a group before (not counting the fax machine.)
We should have gotten her up front years ago—she was wonderful. She told stories on herself—stories many of us had been at least a tangential part of—and the room was cracking up. For a while, we could forget about the fact she was leaving and just celebrate the time she’d been with us, the work we’d done together, the good we had accomplished, and the mistakes we had made yet lived to tell the tales.
As I stood there laughing in a roomful of people I’ve been lucky to work with for 15 years, it didn’t feel like a job, but a community, and, for a moment, almost like family. That’s what stories can do.
So here’s my request for those whose retirements we have yet to celebrate: Please—tell us your stories. They take us back in time. They bring to mind friends we’ve lost, the history we share, and remind us that we’re all part of this story bigger than ourselves.
Thanks, Carolyn, for taking a chance, toughing it out, and making a great “speech.” And for putting up with a lot over 26 years and doing so much to keep this place alive. Your absence in Kane House is palpable. We miss your determination to get things right almost as much as we miss your sense of humor. The “pit” will never be the same.
Of course, when things get tough here in December and folks are trying to keep up with the pledges or battling the latest technological glitch, we’ll always have your immortal words to inspire us—words worthy of a place in the hallowed halls of Wabash lore and that, I promise, we’ll never forget:
“Hello? Hello? Yes, I’d like to send a fax.”