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.
|Photograph by Stu Rosner
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.
|Photograph by Justin Ide
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.
|Photograph by Justin Ide
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.
|Photograph by Justin Ide
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."