A tribute: My first boss

I just found out that the subject of this post from October 2007, my first boss, passed away a couple days ago. It is with both sadness and laughter that I repost this tribute to her. God bless you, Henri — I know you are happily ever after with your Herman.

One of the benefits of working for yourself is, of course, being your own boss. But having a boss isn’t always bad — in fact, I’ve been blessed with some great bosses in my career. My most memorable, however, happens to be my first boss. In fact, Henrietta tops my personal “Most Unforgettable Character” list.

Henrietta (known as Bubbles to her husband Herman, whom she called Barney. I don’t know what’s more priceless: Herman & Henrietta or Barney & Bubbles) was my boss when I was a student worker at Pitt over the summers and part-time during the school year. She was in her mid-60s at the time, and there was nothing she didn’t know how to do or couldn’t find out by making a few phone calls — from unbolting and moving a 30-lb. typewriter to unjamming the Xerox machine to finding out the ZIP code of Little Rock. (Remember these were long before the days when the Internet put all the information that exists at your fingertips. You had to be a detective to get answers.)

She was amazing on the phone, never hesitating a second before saying “I’ll just call and find out” whenever anyone asked anything she didn’t know and taking everything in in her one good ear (the right — you’d always have to remember to talk toward her good ear). All this as she dashed around the office in typical mom-style stretch pants and untypical four-inch Candies.

Thanks to Henri, I know I can always get a job if the writing biz dries up. She taught me everything I know about working in an office — all the basics that really haven’t gone away, even in today’s high-tech world. Well, I guess some of the skills are obsolete unless the IBM Selectric makes a big comeback. But the “get it done” attitude, the organizational skills, the diplomacy, the humor, lots and lots of humor — they will always be essential to succeeding in the business world.

Mostly, though, it was the way she trusted you that made the difference. There wasn’t anything you couldn’t talk to her about or share with her or laugh about. Her “cube” was always a crossroads of activity and a magnet for interesting and funny artifacts. Henri and Barney were two of the most active people I’ve ever met. They loved to travel, and had done everything from sailing around the world with a shipful of college students, to touring Europe by bus, to cruising Alaska by ship. I still remember the clever and fun mementos Henri had gathered to liven up her space…a cartoon of one parrot saying to another “Now that you’ve learned to talk, shut up.”; a ’70s bobbing goonie bird that would continuously dunk its head into a glass of water; a mirror shaped like a ship’s porthole; a certificate signed by the mayor of Jerusalem (Teddy someone); an intricate Chinese papercut; a picture of the very tall Herman dressed up as the Jolly Green Giant for a sales promotion. I quit working there more than 20 years ago and still remember it like it was yesterday.

I knew all about her daughters (Mickey and Marlene), her two grandsons, her 14 miscarriages, her annual Derby Day party, and her and Barney’s love of convertibles. She was like a second mom — about the same age as my mother but about as different as two people could be. At the time, her own mother “Minnie” was in a nursing home “trying to be 100.” (Minnie died when she was 99, but Henri always told people she was 100 because “Minnie would have liked that.”)

Henri never treated you like a kid or an “underling.” She’d share all the latest office gossip, sympathize with you about the difficult people you had to work with, talk to you about TV or movies or classes, or anything you wanted to talk about. She was the youngest person I ever knew. When she turned 70 and faced mandatory retirement, the department threw her a retirement party. I’ll never forget the dress she wore — black with Roaring ’20s fringe all over it. She then proceeded to work part-time for her beloved Semester at Sea program. There was just no stopping her. And boy was she fun at office parties with some wine and cheese to get her going. I loved her story about how Barney, upon meeting the department’s very distinguished, very German director for the first time, clicked his heels as they shook hands, and how she wanted to sink into the carpet on the spot.

It was the best possible start to the working world for a shy 18-year-old. I learned I was responsible, good at my job, able to work comfortably with really smart people, and have loads of fun doing it. And I owe so much of it to Henrietta. One of my big regrets in life is losing touch with her after I graduated and moved into my various jobs. Last I heard, Herman had passed, and Henri was living in a retirement home. I don’t have the guts to find out more. Why? What if she didn’t remember me — the student worker from 20 years ago — one in a LONG line of students she supervised? More importantly, what if she had changed? If age and time had made her somehow not the Henri I knew and loved? I couldn’t handle that. Better that she live on forever young (70!) and wonderful in my memories. Clicking along in those Candies. A great boss and an even better friend.

When people go to work, they shouldn’t have to leave their hearts at home.
~ Betty Bender

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1 Comment

  1. mel said,

    Tuesday, December 21, 2010 at 10:49 am

    she sounds positively awesome. a person I’d like to know, and someone I could emulate, too.


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