Alice Chandler

77-year employee of the University of Chicago

Alice Chandler

Alice Chandler may well have been the longest-serving employee in the University of Chicago’s history.

It’s difficult to know whether she holds the record, but Ms. Chandler worked at the University for well over half of its history, joining the staff as a teenager in 1934. Her service took many forms over the next 77 years, as she worked with many of the institution’s leaders and famed researchers. In the days before she died on May 12 at age 93, President Robert J. Zimmer visited her bedside to tell her the University’s annual staff recognition event would now be called the Alice Chandler Staff Service Recognition Ceremony.

Friends, family and colleagues of Ms. Chandler will gather to celebrate her life, spirit and achievements at 4:30 p.m. Wednesday, June 15, in the Cloister Club of Ida Noyes Hall. The event, “Remembering Alice,” will be followed by a reception from 5:30-6:30 p.m.

The first staff recognition ceremony named after Ms. Chandler will be held on Tuesday, June 14. President Zimmer detailed the ceremony’s name change in a letter he sent to Ms. Chandler: “The printed program and President’s remarks each year will recognize your years of service. You have been an inspiration to all of us, and I believe that this is an appropriate and well-deserved recognition of your contributions to one of the great universities in the world.”

Ms. Chandler’s home bears the signature traits of her unassuming personality. An antique alabaster pedestal with splendid craftsmanship has been carefully preserved. Instead of putting it on obvious display, she tucked it in a corner.

Ms. Chandler never did like the spotlight. A visitor might walk right past another pedestal made of marble, sitting in a dim hallway that leads to the stately set of 16th-century sofas she inherited from her mother.

Born in Alabama in 1918, Ms. Chandler grew up on the South Side of Chicago during the Great Depression when homelessness was rampant and half the city was unemployed.

“Alice was not about possessions, but if she came into them, she took care of them as a responsibility. She respected everything,” said Gail Peek, JD,’84, Ms. Chandler’s daughter-in-law. “But to really understand what floated her boat, look this way and that way.” Floor-to-ceiling windows on the east side of Ms. Chandler's apartment offer an opulent view of Lake Michigan. Directly across the living room, a grand view frames the University of Chicago campus, fitting for a woman considered one of the University’s guardian angels.

Ms. Chandler came to the University at age 16 through a New Deal federal employment stimulus program started by President Franklin D. Roosevelt during the Great Depression, Peek said. Stories vary about what her initial post was, but by age 18 she was promoted to secretary for renowned anthropologist and sociologist William Lloyd Warner. While working at UChicago, she attended Roosevelt University in the evenings, earning her bachelor’s degree in psychology in 1949. She spent part of her career in the 1950s and 1960s as a student advisor in the Committee on Human Development and went on to manage the President and Provost’s offices. At every post, Ms. Chandler was known to diligently care for each task, each student and each colleague.

Ms. Chandler’s son, Dean, a retired chemistry professor who lives in Texas, remembers inviting Professor Emeritus in Psychology Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, PhD ’65, to speak on creativity at the Institute for the Humanities at Salado. An internationally celebrated researcher on positive psychology and the author of Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention, Csikszentmihalyi could not accept many of his speaking invitations. The institute’s director sent Csikszentmihalyi an email and wrote that Dean Chandler’s mother, Alice, would be there and wanted him to speak.

“He wrote back that he hadn’t given a talk in several years, but in light of the fact that Alice was coming, tell him when and where,” Dean Chandler recalled. Ms. Chandler had no idea why Csikszentmihalyi thought she was special, but at the event, he jogged her memory. Csikszentmihalyi told the audience that he would not be successful if Ms. Chandler had not hustled to dig up scholarship money for him to continue undergraduate studies at UChicago more than 30 years earlier. She helped so many students over the decades that she had lost track.

The Alice Chandler Staff Service Recognition Ceremony will be held Tuesday, June 14 to recognize University staff members who have served at least 10 years, and to honor their years of service in five-year increments. Ms. Chandler's length of service and dedication to the University are exactly why staff members are formally recognized.

Her former colleagues in the President and Provost’s offices crack up laughing and break down crying at the impact Ms. Chandler had on their lives, personally and professionally. Some knew her for only five years, while others remember meeting her nearly 40 years ago. They called her their rock. She called them her “peeps.”

“My first impression of her was, ‘Wow, she means business,’” said Anne Casey, executive assistant and manager in the Office of the Provost, who met Ms. Chandler in 1976. “When she came everything started to work, to move. Alice organized us and took charge of things when we were floundering around.”

Ms. Chandler often snatched difficult tasks away from others, knowing she could get them done quicker. “She’d say ‘just give it to me; I’ll take care of it’,” recalled Ingrid Gould, associate provost for faculty and student affairs. “She was generous with her time, money and advice. She had a nose for who needed to be rescued and helped them get to solid ground.”

One of those people was Judy McKissack. Ms. Chandler encouraged McKissack in June 2005 to accept the position as executive secretary to the Board of Trustees. McKissack was not sure she’d fit in well, but Ms. Chandler assured her and guided her through the transition. "In moments of doubt she told me, 'Judy, suck it up, sit down and have a talk,'" McKissack said, laughing. “She had strong opinions, but she was usually right.”

Casey said Ms. Chandler's death feels like an empty hole in the office. Her memory is everywhere. Even in hospice care, days before her death, she was calling the office with little tasks she still needed to complete, making sure everyone was OK.

“Now,” McKissack said, “it will take all of us to do her job.”

By Kadesha Thomas