Penny's worth in her office can be summed up with one word: priceless

L.A. Cicero Penny Martell

Penelope 'Penny' Martell, office manager for Stanford Events, is one of 3 recipients of the 2009 Amy J. Blue award.

In offices throughout campus, there are employees who essentially serve as the cornerstone for an entire operation. They always have a new ink cartridge at the ready when printouts start fading, and they tell you—despite previous reminders—that timecards are due. On top of all that, they still find time to bake the sweet and moist brownies you find in the break room the next morning.

For the departments of Stanford Events and Lively Arts, that person is Penelope "Penny" Martell. She is the office manager for both—because they co-exist at one end of the same building. And as such, she has played a critical, behind-the-scenes role in some of the highest-profile events to occur on campus over the past nine years.

Martell may not have been on stage at last year's graduation ceremonies, but because of her job, she did stand next to Commencement speaker Oprah Winfrey at one point.

"The Dalai Lama—getting close enough to see what he looks like," Martell said as she looked back on her years since joining Stanford Events in 2000. "I would not have met Sen. Feinstein. I would not have talked to Sandra Day O'Connor. I wouldn't have bought a Diet Coke for Bill Gates."

Before she came to Stanford Events, Martell spent 16 years in the Mathematical and Computer Sciences Library. Although it wasn't frequented by celebrities or world leaders, Martell still has a story or two from her days there, first as a general support staffer, but mostly as the library's operations manager.

For instance, the day after the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989, walking onto a silent and deserted campus, Martell marched right into the Math Corner of the Main Quad and found a group of professors making coffee on the third floor. Without hesitating, they followed Martell upstairs to the library and found most of the books on the floor.

"It was a great response from the Math Department. All these professors pitched in," said Martell, who recalled ordering pizza that day and eating with her helpers on the library's outdoor terrace. "The faculty felt this was their library. They should be helping to put it back together."

Martell left the library in November 2000 to work for Stanford Events, the department where her 32-year career at Stanford will come to a close when she retires at the end of next month. Staffers in her office have come to depend on her tireless work ethic and know-how. In their nomination letters, they found it difficult to put her full worth into words.

"It is hard to describe something essential—try describing how wonderful air or water are, it's almost impossible," said Toni Gauthier, a staff writer for Lively Arts. "It is the thousand and one things that she does each day that add up to a woman of formidable grace and tremendous good humor."

And yet, if one had to assign a dollar amount, all one need do is watch Martell in action on any given day. For example, on a recent Monday morning, Martell found out that another office was giving away ink cartridges and other printer parts through the university's Reuse website. She recruited Bill Starr, theater house manager for Lively Arts, to drive them across campus, and before 10 a.m., they had returned with about $900 in parts stacked on a dolly.

"She does this every day," Starr said. "Nobody really understands what Penny does in this office and how detailed she is and how she follows through, how she gets things done, how she makes things happen."

"That's how we've acquired most of the cartridges for this machine," Martell added. "I don't think I've bought but one cartridge, and we've had the machine for, probably, almost five years."

As one of this year's Amy Blue Award winners, Martell will receive a $3,000 cash prize and an "A" parking sticker. (Inquiring minds close to her would like to know what she will do with the sticker, given that she is retiring.)

Not that she will stay away from Stanford altogether. The keeper of the historic Arizona Cactus Garden, next to the Mausoleum, has already approached her about volunteering, and Martell said she fully intends to pop back in the office to occasionally bug her buddy Starr.

However, Martell said she also looks forward to spending more time with her grandchildren, drawing out the family tree and volunteering at the library that is finally breaking ground just down the street from her home in San Jose.

"My goal is to stop working and figure out all the other things I've passed by, so I can do some of them," said Martell, sounding an unusual tone for such a prolific multitasker. "I will probably have more time than I think at this point. But I think I will find ways to fill it in."