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Stanford Report, April 14, 1999

Patricia de Castries: Amy J. Blue Award winner


Photo by Linda Cicero

Many still remember when the restructuring that created the language center resulted in the layoffs of staff, including Patricia de Castries.

"She was a middle-aged woman with no job," recalled German Studies Professor Elizabeth B. Bernhardt, director of the Stanford Language Center. "Everyone sort of looked the other way -- they didn't know what to say to her.

"Patricia was incredibly pleasant, though, to everyone and held her head high."

It would be three months before de Castries found employment again -- and it was back at the language center, as data manager and assistant director. Bernhardt's initial reaction was "not to want to face her."

But de Castries has been thriving at that position for two years. "She has virtually single-handedly made the operation work and made the language center the success that it is," Bernhardt said.

De Castries, who arrived at the central campus in 1987 with $80 to her name, previously administered the Stanford-in-Paris program 15 years ago and was an accountant for the program in the 1970s. Here, she was a language program secretary for about 10 years and served as a computer specialist for the languages program.

But all along, she was gaining renown for her customer service abilities.

Among the more than 30 nominations sent on her behalf for the Amy J. Blue Award, were testimonials about her housing students in her Mountain View home following the Loma Prieta earthquake; running errands and securing equipment for a disabled student; making "house calls" on evenings and weekends to the homes of faculty when their computer systems crashed; and pulling all-nighters (and still showing up at her desk by 7:10 a.m. the following day) to help students format a dissertation.

E. Gary Grundy III of the Stanford Class of 1998 referred to de Castries as "Maman," French for "mom."

"With both her fiery cigarette and Franco-Anglo temperament, Patricia de Castries proves she is no ordinary cog," he warns.

A divorced mother of two grown sons who live in Europe, de Castries, 59, directs most of her energies to her job. The idea of scaling back is not an option for her. "No way. I love being here. I love my students," she says.

De Castries must sign the form for 1,700 freshmen indicating they've completed one year of a university-level foreign language. Pupils (and anxious parents) seek her counsel often.

She rarely takes more than a couple of days off, puts in 10-hour shifts and never takes a lunch break. "I got out of that habit," she said.

In her tidy, light-filled office that overlooks sun-dappled expanses of the quad, de Castries relies on gifts from around the world as decorations. Students and faculty on travels have brought her a metal Hebrew hand, a gaily painted bus from Guatemala, a Korean wedding couple and other souvenirs.

A native of Paris who is half-Irish, de Castries speaks French and English and can understand Spanish. She has never met her 4-year-old grandson, Alexandre, who lives in Paris, but she has seen him on the World Wide Web.

A fan of Arthurian literature and medieval studies, de Castries hopes to use the Amy J. Blue cash award to visit Stonehenge, the prehistoric stone monuments in Salisbury Plain, England. SR