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Guardians at the Gates

When I came to Barnard, Phyllis Ben was one of the first people to greet me. Or, more precisely, she was one of the first people to look me closely up and down, offer a firm handshake, and make clear that my presence on campus was optional. And the options belonged to her.

Debora Spar, President's PagePhyllis, when I met her, was 78 years old. She had been on campus since 1962—a full year, she quickly informed me, before I was even born. Her office was in the guard’s booth, but she reigned widely across campus, keeping an eye on students out late, wandering visitors, and leaky pipes.
Not to mention untested presidents of course, who might or might not, meet
with her approval. So Phyllis kept an eye on me for quite some time. She’d nudge me in the right direction when she discerned I was lost; whisper people’s names to me when she saw I didn’t know them. And quietly, about a year and a half in, she told me that I was probably doing okay. No guarantees, though, from Phyllis, and no empty compliments. Because she fully intended to reserve judgment.

Phyllis started her Barnard career in a modest way, cleaning hallways and scrubbing bathrooms. She worked as a housekeeper for several years and then applied for a security guard position, figuring that there was no reason why a woman—at a women’s college, after all—couldn’t hold that job too. She became a full-time guard in the library and enjoyed it, as she later recalled, “immensely.” She wrote, “I had contact with the students, and I loved that. They always shared with me what was going on in their lives. It felt very special to know that.”

In 1991, when Barnard launched a $100 million capital campaign, Phyllis donated $1,000, confessing to a New York Times reporter, “It was all I could afford. I wish it was millions.” She retired rather wistfully at the age of 80 and remained an on-call guard at the College until her death on June 7. As a fitting tribute, any contributions to Barnard in Phyllis’s memory will be directed to student scholarships (please go to barnard.edu/gift).

Phyllis Ben was an extraordinary member of the Barnard community. But she is hardly alone in her commitment to this community or its students. Recently, for instance, I was chatting with Marina Bonanno and Margherita Caperson, two long-serving members of our Facilities staff. It was the afternoon before Commencement, and I was fretting over the dismal weather forecast that was threatening to dismantle our outdoor plans. For a few minutes, Marina and Margherita indulged my woes. But then they got more serious. “Look,” Marina said, “don’t worry about the rain. The grandparents will be happy in [the Levien Gym]. They’ll be dry.” Then, she reminded me, “More importantly, all the students are so happy. They work so hard here; they work so late; they love their professors so much.” “It’s their day,” she said. “And it doesn’t matter where it happens.” Like Phyllis, she was right. Like Phyllis, she saw through the pomp and ceremony of Barnard to focus on the core.

Then there’s Jeannette Darby, a security guard who volunteers every year to organize the College’s contributions to Columbia Community Service. I saw her this morning, waving visitors on to the campus and chatting with an anxious prospective student. And Ray Torres, who was overseeing a drainage ditch yesterday and carefully explaining our dance program to a visitor today. He ought to know. He’s the proud parent of an alumna, Class of 2005.

We know that Barnard is blessed with an uncommon selection of faculty and students. We choose each and every student with extreme care, picking from an ever-larger applicant pool of bright, vivacious, and ambitious young women. We choose each faculty member from a nationwide search, and then run them through a rigorous seven-year process of development, assessment, and review. But we are also blessed with an extraordinary staff. They choose to come to Barnard, to make the College theirs, and to live its values in their work. They are often the first to interact with the general public and the ones who touch our students’ lives in unexpected but profound ways.

Phyllis Ben worked at Barnard for 48 years—or, as I’m sure she would have liked to remind me, for as long as I’ve been alive. When she spoke at my inauguration, she ended with these classic Irish wishes: “May the wind be always at your back … Thank you for letting me be here and good luck to you. I hope you have as great a time as I’m having.”

“I am, Phyllis,” I’d like to say to her. “I am.”

—Debora Spar