Figuring things out with life’s challenges
Prompt: Tell us a story about a roommate
I spent an off-campus semester in Chicago with a thrust-upon-me roommate: [Maurizio] Nick Barbatano ’81. We had nothing in common: My grandparents were born here, he was an Italian who emigrated from Ethiopia at 7; I am Jewish, he was exploring eastern meditation; I have a huge family, he had his mother; he was a computer geek, I clearly wasn’t; and our circles of Grinnell friends had no intersection. Borne by chance, in our one-room apartment we formed a deep and lasting friendship.
By college I (like, perhaps, all of us) had learned that everyone has something to offer, that people from other backgrounds could add value to my life. That was clearly an intrinsic value in Grinnell’s ethos. And, yes, I knew it intellectually. But fate and Nick taught me that, at a deep, core level. In addition to a lifelong friendship, I got a lesson that continues to benefit me in my work with the homeless in Chicago.
During my sophomore year I roomed in Smith Hall Annex with Don Young ’52, who put a huge sign on our door, NOSMO KING. Those who wondered who Nosmo was, found out if they entered our room with a cigarette. Don would open the windows wide, even in the dead of winter, and swing the door back and forth until they got it. If they still didn’t snuff it out, well, Don was on the football team.
After Grinnell, Don was the idea man behind the Mrs. America contest. Luckily for him, it was before the word “Ms.” became standard.
In grad school I roomed with two students. One, Peter Falk, would become the world’s most famous detective — “Columbo.” We remained friends until he died a few years ago. Our second roommate, Dave Forden, was recruited by the CIA, trained as a paratrooper, and eventually became the CIA’s chief of Russian operations. He never discussed his work (not even with his wife) but we learned about his intrepid career in A Secret Life, a book by a New York Times reporter, and a movie, Jack Strong, which was his CIA code name.
My first-year roommate was a fellow Grinnell Science Project participant named Adele Crane ’14. We got along exceptionally well and had so many great moments together throughout the year. We became great friends.
One of the funniest moments we had together was during Grinnell’s Family Weekend. Adele has an identical twin, Susan, who attended a different college at the time. I walked into our room after soccer practice that weekend, and immediately began to chat with Adele about the day. I noticed her hair looked slightly different, but I dismissed the thought and attributed it to my exhaustion from practice. As I was listening to her day plans, in came Adele’s family. Behind them was Adele, who was laughing hysterically. I had been talking to Susan, who had been pretending to be Adele, the whole time. Epic twin prank.
Prompt: Tell us about a job you’ve had, either while at Grinnell or afterward.
When I was at Grinnell, I was lucky enough to snag a job at the fine arts office, working for Berneil Mueller. All through my time on campus, she proved to be a fine friend and mentor. She taught me, among other things, the value of meticulous proofreading. I helped her prepare and proof many of the flyers for arts-related College events, and she would have shaved my head and beaten me bloody if I had ever let a spelling mistake or grammar goof get past me.
Now she is long retired, the fine arts building is long gone, and auto-correct has taken over the universe, but I have gotten a lot of mileage out of the lessons she taught me, maybe even more than from some of the classes I took. Now that’s a liberal arts education, and I am grateful for every aspect of it.
In 1960, the early bird was first in line for breakfast at Main. My roommate Ellen Weitz DeNelsky ’62 and I were always those early birds. We were up every morning at 5 a.m. (including Sundays), faithfully delivering The Des Moines Register to all subscribers on South campus. That was before technology disseminated the national news; and to be informed, people actually read the newspaper. There were a significant number of subscribers and thus, very heavy loads for two “little” girls.
Ellen took all floors in all dorms from Haines to Loose, and I did the same for James to Main. We got a complete workout, up and down stairs toting papers all before breakfast. Only once did I wimp out, and dear Ellen did the whole route by herself. We certainly learned self-discipline and to be self-starters, while earning some money toward books and an occasional splurge at the student union.
I did other student work over my mid-1950s’ college years, but my best job was all-night switchboard operator for the campus telephone service.
Located above the heating plant, the switchboard served as a communications hub. Using brightly colored cords, I connected dorms, offices, and the outside world, responding to incoming calls with the same descriptive greeting: “College Central.”
Women operated the switchboard by day, men at night. There were three night-shift guys; we rotated, reporting for work every third night — in at 10 p.m., out at 7 a.m. At 11 p.m., the switchboard closed to the usual telephone contacts; however, it remained open for emergencies. Learning how to handle the 3 a.m. requests taught me how to be at the ready for others. Words from an ancient Welsh folk song kept me company throughout each night: “The moon her watch is keeping.” I, too, kept watch.
One of the worst jobs I had was a temp job over Grinnell’s winter break. I had to file for eight hours a day in a room solely filled with files. What made it the worst job was if there was no established place for a file, I couldn’t create one but had to put it back in the to-file box. By the end of the day I was just walking around the room with files that I knew had no place to go. I learned about the absurdity of real life.
At Quad during lunchtime in the early ’90s, you could often find me unloading the dishwasher. Sure the work wasn’t all that stimulating, but I made a game of it. In order to avoid a Lucille Ball-style catastrophe, the dishwasher would shut down its conveyor belt if the dishes weren’t unloaded before the end of the belt. The goal of the game was to make sure that I unloaded dishes and trays fast enough so that the conveyor belt never stopped during my shift. I typically won. It helped that the person loading the dishwasher didn’t know that he or she was playing the game.