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Stanford Report, April 26, 2000

Imelda White: 'I'm a servant of the public'


Photo: Rod Searcey

Reviewing memorial service details with grieving relatives, schlepping around town for Easter lilies or Christmas trees, or making sure the church isn't double-booked is all part of a day's work for Imelda White, administrator for Memorial Church and the Office for Religious Life.

"Because of the nature of my job, I do everything," she says. Those who've worked with her agree.

"To hold Imelda White's job is to sense in a phone caller's voice whether that person is in crisis, and to spy in the face of someone walking into the Round Room whether he or she is in distress, or simply in need of directions, advice or a parking space," says Robert Gregg, the Teresa Hihn Moore Professor in Religious Studies, who stepped down as dean of the chapel in December 1998.

In providing administrative assistance to the interim dean of the chapel and three associate deans, White manages calendars, client contact, correspondence and central files.

And while White wears many hats, she'll always be partial to her hard hat -- the first chapeau that crowned her Irish locks for nearly a year after being hired there during the summer of 1992.

The church, then closed for repairs sustained in the 1989 earthquake, was "nothing but scaffolding -- from floor to ceiling," she says. She got to know the construction crew that spent its working days up in the dome restoring the sanctuary.

White's eight-year stretch at Memorial Church has been her longest at Stanford. Her first job at the university was in the Department of Linguistics, where for five years she taught courses in Irish/Gaelic. She then worked temporarily as a secretary in the Planning Office. From 1988 to 1991 she was an office assistant for the dean of the School of Engineering. Before her appointment to her current position, she worked for two years as secretary to the dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences.

There, she was "imperturbable," recalls psychology Professor Ewart Thomas, a former H&S dean who found that White could be trusted to advocate fairly for those seeking appointments with the dean. Thomas said White was genuine in her interactions with the many who came in contact with her and delivered consistently on providing good customer service, on which the office placed a high premium.

Meeting the needs and demands of others seems right to White. "We respond, we serve -- I'm a servant of the public," she says.

And while the challenges of her current duties pull her in many directions, White is adamant about taking lunch breaks or making time for that afternoon walk, swim or yoga class.

"It's very important to take that midday break," she says.

White, who holds a bachelor's degree in organizational behavior from the University of San Francisco, left the "isolation" of her native Ireland to do some traveling. While working in Germany, she met and married an American and the couple moved to California in 1973. She reared two daughters, now grown, before going back to work.

Right now she's not looking beyond her current professional responsibilities. "I just do what needs to be done in the moment."

White was at Memorial Church and had just dashed into her office from an errand when a delegation of Amy J. Blue Awards Committee members stopped in with the news of her selection. "I was truly flabbergasted," she says.

The thought of being nominated was one she hardly entertained since Gregg, the former dean of the chapel, served on the committee and it would have been a conflict for her to be considered, she figured.

But Gregg is no longer her boss and her current supervisor isn't on the committee, so White's turn had arrived, nominators surmised.

Says Kelly Denton-Borhaug, interim dean for religious life: "Every person who telephones or presents him or herself in front of her desk is the recipient of a warm smile, a gentle inquiry and a wealth of professional information." SR