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  News from the Hill    

An Interview with Irene T. Cole

“The greatest part was to see how things happen”

Irene T. Cole worked at Holy Cross for 24 years. For the last 16 years, as the administrative assistant to the dean of the College, she was in a unique position to observe the evolution of the faculty, the curriculum, and the academic reputation of the College. Jack O’Connell sat down to reminisce with Irene during her last week before retirement. As she cleared out files and packed up mementos, she recalled her arrival on the Hill.

Q: Where are you from originally?
A: Chicopee, Mass. Out in the western part of the state.

Q: How did you end up in Worcester?
A: My husband’s business brought us here.

Q: Were you aware of Holy Cross before you came to Worcester?
A: Very definitely. You know the bench out front dedicated to the memory of Edward J. McDonald? Well, the McDonald family lived on my block growing up, so I heard quite a bit about Holy Cross. Then, of course, my husband is an alumnus. Frank J. Cole, class of ’53.

Q: What year did you start working at Holy Cross?
A: In 1974. My youngest was in first grade at that point. My first position was in the dean’s office as a receptionist. Fr. Fahey was the dean.

Q: Did you stay in the dean’s office?
A: No, I was only in the dean’s office for two years. Then there was an opening in the visual arts department and I moved there for seven years. At that point I was ready to work full time rather than the academic year, so I went to work for Dr. Toth in the counseling center. Six months after that, in 1982, my current position opened up.

Q: So you’ve been in the same position from 1982 until 1998. A lot of changes have happened during this time and you’ve been in a great position to see many of them. From your perspective, what have been some of the biggest changes?
A: I suppose the biggest one was having served under the first lay dean, Frank Vellaccio. When I started it was Fr. Schroth and then Dean Vellaccio and then Dean Kee.

Q: What was the most fun thing about the position?
A: It’s a serious office, dealing with serious issues, but there have been many, many light moments. Having worked for Frank Vellaccio for 10 years, he kept me laughing. The greatest part was to see how things happen. How someone walks into the office one day with an idea and it gets discussed and bandied about and it grows and goes to committee and it becomes something. The First-Year Program, for instance.

Q: You saw that program take off from the ground up.
A: To see how these things happen and to be part of these discussions for 10 years has been very exciting. I attended the Educational Policy Committee meetings to take minutes and that’s where these topics get discussed and decided. You really see the mechanics of how the educational system of the campus works.

Q: It would seem that today, as opposed to the ’70s, there are so many more specialized academic programs and interdisciplinary programs. Students have more options. Things have mushroomed over the past 15 years.
A: There’s no question. Especially when I hear my husband talk about his days as a student, landing in a course because his name began with a “C.”

Q: In terms of faculty, any favorites?
A: Oh, yes! There have been some wonderful people. I don’t want to single anyone out because I’d slight so many others, but Ed Callahan comes to mind immediately — he used to buy his cars from my husband. Steve (Ainlay) was a great friend even before he became dean. Some I became close to when they served on the CTP (Committee for Tenure and Promotion), because everything goes through our office. So you’re meeting with these people and they’re going through very stressful times.

Q: That must be a difficult committee to be involved with in terms of the hard choices to be made and the consequences of those choices.
A: It’s where you really see what people are like, never mind their discipline or scholarship. You see what the real person is like. There are so many great people – Chick Weiss, Mark Freeman, Jim Kee. Interesting and warm people. Susan Rogers. Karen Turner. Terri Priest. They all became good friends.

Q: Let’s talk about the tenure process. I would guess this was one of the more intensive and difficult aspects of the job.
A: It can be difficult when someone is denied tenure. Even though I was always aware that the committee has a procedure to follow and is doing its job, it can be stressful. I always felt part of that process because I would give the candidate the tenure report. When things went well, it was always delightful and people would come back to me and thank me for the way I handled the process. They always said they could never tell when they came in for their report whether it was good or bad. Sometimes you’d see them start to tear the envelope open before they left the office and you’d think, please don’t do that here. But most would head back to their offices and lock the door before reading the report.

Q: Any unusual or anecdotal moments you recall as you start to finish up your last week?
A: Oh, yes, especially as I’ve been going through the files. Having my daughter (Mary Elizabeth Curnen ’89) here as a student was delightful. I loved those four years. She graduated in ’89. She met her husband here.

Q: When she was a student here and you were working in the dean’s office, did you get together on campus or did you keep her student life separate?
A: (laughing) She lived on campus and she certainly had her own life, but she had a key to my car! I remember one night leaving the office to get the car and it wasn’t there. I searched all over and Frank Vellaccio — I just love the man! — he was at a meeting. Gary Phillips and I were looking for Marybeth. We came through Hogan and Frank was at a meeting and he saw us and came out and said, “What’s the problem?” He left the meeting and started searching with me. We found the car and Marybeth! — “Oh, I forgot to tell you, Mom, I borrowed it! Were you worried?” But it’s hard to pick one moment, because it’s been such a wonderful time.


Irene T. Cole

Irene T. Cole

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