|Cabrini College, taken by me during Alumni Weekend ~ June 2010|
There are, in this world, people who through their work become so connected and so synonymous with a place that after many years (decades even) it becomes impossible to think of one without the other.
We all know just such a person, though, don't we? If you're lucky, like me, maybe a few such gems have fallen like stars into your life.
Martha was one of those gems, one of those shining stars.
* * *
Back in the late '80s, our part-time jobs in the Office of Public Relations at our small Catholic college were to do whatever was needed. And whatever was needed included such glamorous tasks such as typing memos (on actual typewriters!) and stuffing envelopes until our fingers became serrated from paper cuts.
Sometimes we were sent over to Alumni Affairs to help them out if they were busy - which they also often were. This became more than a job, more than busywork, more than a much-needed paycheck for our ... ahem, only-the-good-die-young Catholic college weekend pleasures.
I had no way of knowing it at the time, but the people surrounding my 19-year-old self would become my future references and my touchstones who would keep me personally and professionally grounded.
Martha was all of those.
As the Director of Alumni Affairs of our small Catholic college for nearly 30 years, we kind of knew it was Martha's job to pay attention to us as students (and, later, of course, as alums) but we kind of forgot it was her job. She made it seem easy while making us feel special. Always with a warm smile and an abundance of time for the students, no matter how busy she was, Martha took a genuine interest in our classes and our love interests. She was as much immersed in our lives as if she was our roommate. For years afterward, whenever we met, she would share in our college memories as if she lived them alongside with us.
That's because she did.
Another thing that I had no way of knowing at the time:
I never expected to become a Director of Alumni Affairs of a small Catholic college, one that fiercely competed with my own alma mater, no less. Like many people of my generation who became fundraising professionals, I'm one of those who "fell into" the profession - as if it was something of an accident, as if the job is akin to quicksand, ready to devour you and sink your soul.
In my days as an alumni director, the mid-late '90s in development and fundraising found us all on the cusp of change. We tried making sense of it all. We needed a little help from our friends, as The Beatles famously said - but not just any friends. No. Friends who understood the intricacies and the demands zinging from many, and the long hours and the behind-the-scenes-but-always-on nature of the work. We needed friends who had the same issues, who invented and reinvented all the wheels and who knew the names of every one of the spokes. We needed help flossing through the murk and the ethics and assuaging our personal emotions and profound hurt amidst the hubris of others; we needed to see others who endured, who came out the other side tested, a bit battle-worn but stronger for the fight.
As the seasons shifted on our respective stately, mansioned, and rotunda'ed campuses, we became known as The Catholic 7, representing the alumni directors of seven small Catholic colleges in the Philadelphia suburbs. Ours was a sorority of sorts (with a guy or two thrown in) and our quarterly meetings ones where we gathered for sustenance of every kind - food, laughter, and the comfort of knowing there were people to help us work through our unique professional challenges together.
The Grande Dames of the Catholic 7 were, we all knew, women who had held the role of alumni director at a small, Philadelphia area Catholic college each for decades.
And then me, just a year or two into my job.
Collectively, they had lifetimes of experience on me, yet they welcomed me to the roundtable. My ideas were listened to and in turn, I soaked up their words of advice and wisdom as if it were the Holy Spirit speaking.
They mentored me, taught me all I know about donor relations and stewardship, but no one in the Catholic 7 did this moreso or better than Martha. Of all of them, it was Martha with whom I had the strongest connection, for this once-her-student worker-stuffing-envelopes-now-professional-colleague relationship was a unique concoction. One part bemusement, the other part pride, in that circle I was hers: a graduate of her college, a product of her office. All I wanted to do was to make her look good, to make her proud.
Martha died yesterday morning and I felt a part of myself crumble. I was sitting in a hospital as The Husband was undergoing surgery as the news streamed through my cell phone from college friends. I realized again how lucky I was to have known Martha in the different roles I've played - a student worker, an alumni volunteer, a professional peer and colleague. I thought of my days with the formidable women of The Catholic 7 and hoped that their institutions of Catholic higher education, like the one I'm a proud graduate of, realize just how many riches untold and uncounted are owed to their alumni director. They stand today on the seeds sown by these often unsung women.
As we mourn Martha and share our memories and heartbreak, we remember how special she made us feel. And we realize that in our sadness, she has stealthily done it once again. She has made it seem so easy. By connecting us in our grief, she has strengthened our everlasting and unchanging bonds to each other - for in the end, that's all any of us have - while bringing us right back to our roots and to where we spread our wings to fly.