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Grin and Barrett

After 45 years, Information Center veteran saying goodbye instead of hello
Kathy Barrett, a 45-year veteran of the Information Office at MIT, sits at the front desk to the office recently as her retirement date approaches.
Kathy Barrett, a 45-year veteran of the Information Office at MIT, sits at the front desk to the office recently as her retirement date approaches.
Photo / Patrick Gillooly

When Kathy Barrett first started working at MIT, Commencement was held at Rockwell Cage and Julius Adams Stratton was the Institute's president. Now, 45 Commencements and six presidents later, Barrett is just days away from a well-earned retirement.

And the timing is no coincidence.

"I actually arranged my retirement around [Commencement] so I could see another one," said Barrett, 69, a staff associate in the Information Center. "To me, the most important day of the year is Commencement. That's why we're here."

Barrett's MIT career started immediately after she graduated from Emmanuel College, when a staffing agency led her to the Institute. At first, she was offered a job with the library but "the hours weren't great," so she opted for a second offer, with the registrar's office, where she started on March 11, 1963.

"Those were the days you put the grades in by hand," Barrett said.

Three months later, thanks to an employee who was on vacation, Barrett was asked to fill in temporarily at the Information Center, "and I never left," she said.

Part of that longevity, she said, is due to her colleagues.

"We're a team down there. I know offices say that, but we're small, we're very close to each other, we depend on each other, we respect each other. And you have to for that office. You just have to be a team member," she said. "We're crazy, but we're nice crazy."

As an Information Center employee, Barrett said she enjoys being the first contact some people--particularly prospective students looking for a tour--might have at MIT. And she's fielded most questions you can think of, and some you can't. Gayle Gallagher, director of the Information Center, noted that Barrett has an answer for every question.

"In the 25 years that I have had the pleasure of working with Kathy, I have never known her to be stumped by a question," Gallagher said.

And while most of the questions do focus on MIT, some get a little off topic.

"We get people in off the street, and most of them have inventions," she said. "And they want help on the inventions."

Other times the questions are out of the blue, like one posed by an individual trying to find out how late the maternity ward at Brigham and Women's Hospital was open.

For Barrett's co-workers--whom she praises above herself--any answer can be found by just asking Kathy.

"Kathy is an extraordinary wealth of Institute knowledge and history," Gallagher said, adding that she'd now have to learn the street addresses of buildings on campus because before she "could just ask Kathy and she knew them all."

Barrett's workload goes beyond doling out information as well--she's "distributed more than 300,000 Commencement tickets to graduates and their families" in her 45-year tenure, Gallagher said.

Her perseverance will be especially missed, Gallagher said. "I will personally miss her unflappability in the face of the ever-interesting escapades we encounter at MIT's front doors."

Barrett is treating herself to some simple pleasures as retirement nears: She's hired a town car to take her from her home in Marblehead--where she's lived all her life--to work in Cambridge.

As her final days at MIT close in, Barrett will be celebrated with a simple--as she requested--party in her honor on June 25, from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. in the Information Center. Much to her personality, the rules for Wednesday's farewell party were simple. "I didn't want any formal speeches or anything."

"It's going to be chaos," she joked. "Very small office, tours are going to be running just the same. But that's what we do, that's where I want to be."

But her final day at work, June 27 (because she took June 30 as a vacation day), probably won't be her last visit to MIT. She might even be seen hanging around Killian Court in early June next year.

"If I am invited, maybe."

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