Harvard's "Lady Di"

Diane Jellis, momentarily at rest in Wadsworth House. Photograph by Stu Rosner If you don't already know Diane Jellis, you may have...

Diane Jellis, momentarily at rest in Wadsworth House.
Diane Jellis, momentarily at rest in Wadsworth House.
Photograph by Stu Rosner
If you don't already know Diane Jellis, you may have seen her. It's hard to miss the tall blonde with the commanding air ever-present on the sidelines of "Senior Week," reunions, and Commencement: striding in and out of tents murmuring orders into her walkie-talkie, checking her hip pager, and gripping a monstrous clipboard. All this to ensure that a year's worth of work unfolds without a hitch. "There is no dress rehearsal," she exhorts her staff, "so let's get it right the first time!"

For the last 20 years Jellis has been the point person--or, as some people call her, the "face of Harvard"--for many alumni. She is the first woman and first non-College graduate to hold the post of associate director of classes and reunions and, as such, is in charge of organizing all College-related social events for more than 80,000 graduates from the class of 1924 to present--including putting on the 14 yearly reunions for 8,000 attendees. Her team, which includes a 10-person staff at the Harvard Alumni Association, also produces senior-year events and Senior Week (that's parties and gatherings for 1,600 students and their families); and coordinates class secretaries, class reports, and several alumni committees. It's a "dinosaur-size" job, Jellis says, requiring her to keep track of hundreds of crucial details, aid scores of alumni volunteers, and cajole disparate members of the University, who may not always play well together, to unite in showcasing Harvard's achievements and welcoming alumni to the grand spectacle that is Commencement week. "It's like Eisenhower planning D-Day," explains University marshal Richard M. Hunt, who has worked with her for two decades. "She's Generalissimo Jellis."

To understand more, simply flip through Jellis's six-inch-thick binder (carried in its own tote bag) filled solely with papers related to procuring 6,033 tables, nearly 80,000 chairs, 133 tents, and food and drink--last year's beverage bill for the three major reunion classes alone was $45,000, she says. "We use every single table and chair available to us in the New England region, and then some," she adds, opening her binder. "I have 150 pages of maps alone, showing where the chairs and tables and tents need to go." It's like planning a wedding, an observer notes. "No," she corrects, kindly. "It's like planning 100 weddings all at once, all on the same day." The job demands the aplomb of a Park Avenue hostess, the diplomacy of Middle East negotiators, and the encouraging bark of a coxswain in the heat of a race: all of which Jellis embodies with a queenliness that's earned her the office nickname "Lady Di." "Because she can rule," says Joshua Dieterich '93, who works under Jellis and handles the thirty-fifth and fiftieth reunions. "She has a presence that commands attention and respect and makes you get things done--her way, which is, most often, the best way. That's what makes her so effective."

In her office, amid mounds of paperwork.
In her office, amid mounds of paperwork.
Photograph by Justin Ide
So this winter when Jellis announced plans to resign and move to Maine full-time, colleagues and alumni who have counted on her for years--like the mother who is always there when you get home from school--were stunned. Dozens of e-mails, phone calls, and letters poured into her office at Wadsworth House from those bemoaning her departure. "What's this? We can replace Rudenstine more easily than we can find someone to fill the shoes of Diane Jellis!" wrote Charles D. Thompson, secretary for the class of 1947. Julie Starr-Duker '82 asked: "How will the alumni function without you?" "NO! NO! NO!" cried Tom Everett, director of the University Band. "What if we moved Commencement to Maine? It can work!"

Such praise has been filed under "love letters," says Jellis, who is tickled to be in the spotlight. Come June 30, she knows leaving will not be easy. "I arrived at Harvard as an insecure 19-year-old-girl," she says. "I was a single mother, divorced, on welfare, with barely a high-school diploma." A friend, whose father was the head of grounds at Harvard, told her he had a contact at the Alumni Records Office and urged her to apply for a job. It was 1969. Though wary of Harvard Square's "drug scene and big-city evil ways" (she was born and raised in Lexington), Jellis showed up for an interview and was hired on the spot to answer phones in the office. Only later did human resources ask her to fill out the application. She moved in 1973 to what was called at that time the Associated Harvard Alumni, now the HAA, as a secretary, soon becoming indispensable to the men then in charge of Harvard clubs, classes, and reunions. "They were glad to have the help," she says. "I do have an ability to make things work well. I see what needs to be done and I just go out and do it. I didn't necessarily ask anyone about it first and I think it's that same attitude I have today."

Victory is in the details.
Victory is in the details.
Photograph by Justin Ide
Mimi Truslow, program administrator at the Graduate School of Design, recalls first meeting Jellis in 1982 (soon after she obtained her current title) on the Commencement week task force that Jellis co-leads. "Organizationally, I saw what might have been an old-boy network that might not have been too happy to work under a woman's leadership," Truslow says. "But Diane's style was so evenhanded and participatory that she quite undid any resistance that might have been there." She creates confidence by doing what she says she is going to do and leads with an uncommonly personal touch, Truslow adds. Jellis has no qualms about telling people what to do in a friendly but firm way, joking around, cursing "like a truck driver" when frustrated (she admits), or telling a reunion committee member how she taped up her torn dress hem before coming to work. She disarms people by showing them her own fallibility, and confiding in them. "I want them to know I am just like them, and I want them on my side," she says, having worked her way up as a woman in what was a man's environment. "It levels the playing field so we can get what needs to be done done."

For the HAA, her institutional knowledge, her contacts and friends at all levels of the University, and her personal relationships with hundreds of alumni (especially among the very oldest classes) will be sorely missed. "Diane is this salt-of-the-earth kind of person who gets along with everybody, and has a very honest sense of humor," says Josh Dieterich. "She is a ray of light in a place like this, which can sometimes be very reserved or stuffy." "She is one of my favorite Harvard executives," says Chuck Thompson. "She is a tough boss, which you have to be in this job, but sensitive and competent enough to deal with and motivate alumni. I will miss her."

So, why is she leaving a job at which she has been so successful, well before retirement age? Despite the surprise to everyone else, she says, her decision was three life-changing years in the making. "Harvard was my partner for 31 and a half years, and it's been a great relationship," she explains. "But now I have found a new life partner and I don't want to spend as much time at the office. And in the last 10 years my whole personal life has migrated to Maine."

It all began two months after her mother's death in May 1997. Jellis was heading up to Maine (where for years her family has owned a cottage on an island in Casco Bay) for the July Fourth weekend. She was in a particularly cranky mood, desperate for a break from work, and a spin on her beloved 110-horse-powered boat. She had pressed the owner of the marina to get it in the water and he had assured her that the new mechanic worked quickly. Dubious, Jellis arrived at the marina prepared to argue, when the mechanic turned around, tipped his cap, and said, "Hi. I'm Felix Small, and your boat's all ready."

Jellis holds forth at one of many planning meetings.
Jellis holds forth at one of many planning meetings.
Photograph by Justin Ide
Within six months she and Small were engaged. They bought a house in Freeport (a "party house," she calls it, with a pool) and she sold the only home she'd ever known, in Lexington, in just two days. Only then did she think of her job. She talked to her boss, HAA executive director John P. Reardon '60, about altering her schedule and thus began commuting from Maine four days a week and living part-time with her daughter in Billerica. She and Small were married in 1999.

But the commute was disruptive and became exhausting, especially on top of the usual stress of her job. Then her daughter, coincidentally, moved to Maine, just 13 miles from Freeport. Arrows began to point north in Jellis's mind. "I always knew I would retire to Maine," she says. "But everything was fitting together in this neat little package sooner than I expected and not to jump on it would have been a huge mistake." She even found a "dream job": in March she became the manager of the Portland Yacht Club. She's been working two jobs ever since then.

"Diane has a passion for her work," is how Reardon sees it. "She's strong. She's confident. And she knows all the ins and outs of everything that goes on around the University and knows everyone here. She won't be quickly replaced." At press time, no successor had been named.

Some people leaving a job might take time off, or at least take it easy in their last weeks. Not Jellis. As Senior Week and reunions drew near this spring, she was busier than ever. And just before Commencement week, when HAA staffers are pushed to their limits, she will move, as usual, into a room in Wigglesworth (linked by a door to Wadsworth House) to be on hand "24/7," as she puts it. "People say 'Let it go, you're leaving.' But this is all too important to me," she says, laughing. "And, of course, I have to leave a perfect legacy...I've even planned that one out."

Read more articles by: Nell Porter Brown

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