Joan Rice and more than 200 admirers celebrated her retirement last Friday with praise, laughter, spring water and flowered water in the Humanities Library.
Old friends, flowers and plants temporarily replaced the computers that help people search for knowledge. It was a fitting transformation for an Institute that the vice president for human resources joined 26 years ago as a secretary because "MIT was a place that wanted to be better than it was that day. It was a place where a lot was happening" in 1972, she told the audience. "It was very male. Most of the women were support staff. But it was a working place. Even coming in as a support staff person, I could speak up and I could ask questions. I've seen a lot of changes&emdash;I think very much for the better," she said, adding with a characteristic laugh, "In other organizations, I think they would have gotten rid of me."
Those who paid tribute to her in an hour of speeches, a skit and a song included Treasurer Emeritus Glenn Strehle, Medical Director Arnold Weinberg, Associate Medical Director William Kettyle, Professor Paul and Mrs. Priscilla Gray, Assistant Benefits Manager Philip Lima, Director of Personnel for Benefits and Systems Marianne Howard, Director of Personnel for Employee Relations Robert Lewis, Executive Vice President John Curry, Senior Associate Dean Isaac Colbert, Vice President Kathryn Willmore, Professor Henry Jacoby of the Sloan School, President Charles Vest, Personnel Officers James McCarthy and Alyce Johnson (the latter joined by the Martha Vineyarders chorus), and Joan Farrell, an administrative assistant in Personnel.
Ms. Rice's character was sketched in the words colleagues used to describe her: irreverent, outspoken, candid, humorous, animated, energetic, generous, supportive, caring, wise. She is, said colleagues, "an elegant lady" with integrity, impeccable judgment, a sensitivity to issues of race, a massive sense of egalitarianism, a deep sense of the absurd, and a strong sense of right and wrong which was reflected in her determination to have all of MIT on one pension plan.
Her sense of humor was reflected in two incidents described by colleagues. Ms. Farrell, who has been Ms. Rice's assistant for the past 12 years, recalled "the other Joan" making fun of herself by hopping along an office corridor like a kangaroo from her native Australia.
Ms. Willmore said that when asked to bring to an Academic Council retreat a childhood picture that related to her work at MIT, Ms. Rice brought a photo of herself at age 7, holding her pet chicken. She told her colleagues that it related to her job because she was "taking care of all the little chickens at MIT."
Ms. Willmore then made a presentation to Ms. Rice, and held out to her a large wrapped box. Ms. Rice, laughing, reached in and pulled out a stuffed Rhode Island Red rooster for her new home on Martha's Vineyard "Oooh!" she said, laughing, shuddering, shaking her hands and squealing. "It feeeels alive!"
President Vest closed the ceremony. Looking at Ms. Rice and Mr. Strehle sitting in armchairs on the stage, he joked they had not been very straightforward with the MIT community about their future plans. He had the pleasure of announcing that "Joan and Glenn will be the new co-hosts of Good Morning America." Heads snapped around to look at the pair as the audience laughed at the almost-believable prediction.
A version of this article appeared in the May 5, 1999 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 43, Number 29).