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campus scene

A quiet passion Prof. Tad Kuroda honored
Fashion police
How songbirds dress for success
Creative Genius
Heather Hurst '97 wins MacArthur grant
Front man at the Tang
New museum director
Winning number Of odds and iPods
Sharing worldly words Acclaimed poet Rita Dove
Smooth operator
The "voice of Skidmore" retires
Professoriat What the faculty are up to
Hall of Famers make history
Sports standouts inducted
Sportswrap Thoroughbred highlights
Horn of plenty Joshua Redman in jazz residency
Beatlemania 2004 The MU 345 tradition rocks on
Faculty and alumni authors


Smooth operator


Number, please…

Like many voice-recognition
telephone systems, Skidmore’s tries hard to please, with varying success. This can be frustrating if you’re trying to locate someone, and endlessly amusing if you have time on your hands. Scope pressed “0” soon after the November elections, with curious results.

VRS: Please say the first
and last name of the person
or department you’d like to speak to.
Scope: John Kerry.
VRS: Please hold while I transfer you to Ian Berry. [He’s the curator at the Tang Museum.]

VRS: Please say the first
and last name of the person
or department you’d like to speak to.
Scope: George Bush.
VRS: I think you said Julie Lutz. [She’s a student.] Is this
Scope: No.
VRS: I’m sorry, I can’t tell whether you said Yes or No.

VRS: Please say the first
and last name of the person
or department you’d like to speak to.
Scope: Ralph Nader.
VRS: I think you said Brian Heyler. [He’s a mail clerk at
the campus post office.] Is this correct? —MTS


Helen Senecal isn’t especially fond of jabbering on the phone. She lets her husband take the calls. And she definitely doesn’t like talking to answering machines (“Forget that!”). All of which may seem a bit odd if you consider that for a quarter-century Senecal operated Skidmore’s switchboard. As a supervisor, she answered the phone herself five days a week and also looked after seven other operators who staffed the desktop switchboard in a tight, subterranean room beneath the library walkway.

Before the introduction of automated phone systems, Senecal and her “girls” (and two guys) placed all long-distance calls for faculty and staff and answered every incoming call—including ones from students. “You never knew what you were going to get,” Senecal chuckles. “The kids would ask anything—how to spell a word, how to cook a turkey, even what day it was.” And once or twice—oh, say, during exam week—there was a not-very-convincing bomb scare.

She regularly fielded questions from callers seeking driving directions, the whereabouts of their child, restaurant recommendations, weather updates. “And the summer people!” she exclaims, referring to the hundreds of visitors and special-program patrons. “The funniest was when I had a gentleman whose wife was attending a conference and wanted to send him shopping—for bras!” (Senecal referred him to a Wilton Mall department store.) When requests were made for more pillows, more blankets—and, as summer conference director Sharon Arpey acknowledges, “wake-up calls, room service, and other amenities—Helen politely reminded them that they were staying on a college campus, not at a hotel.”

Anyone who ever heard Senecal’s musical greeting—“Gooood morning! Skiiiidmore College!”—
was likely not to forget it.

As the Skidmore phone system became automated, operators went the way of the milkman. “There’s no more personal touch,” Senecal laments. “But we’re lucky that it lasted as long as it did. People calling in were so glad to get a live person. That’s what they’d say: ‘Are you live?’” Anyone who ever heard Senecal’s musical greeting—“Gooood morning! Skiiiidmore College!” with its upward lilt on the first and third words—was likely not to forget it. “I was impressed with Helen’s cheeriness and helpfulness on the front line,” says Karl Broekhuizen, former VP of business affairs. Rule number one, Senecal says, was to “remember that you’re dealing with the public. You’re often their first contact with the college. You have to be polite, patient, friendly, able to pacify. You can’t sound like you just woke up and don’t want to get out of bed.”

In the fifteen years that tech-services director Tim Casey was Senecal’s supervisor, he received at least a couple dozen calls from “people wanting us to know what a great ambassador this ‘voice of Skidmore’ was for the college.” Adds English professor Phyllis Roth, “Her greeting always put a smile on my face—I found it particularly delightful and reassuring when I called in from my travels.” “My one big regret,” Senecal says, “is that I never met many of the people I conversed with over the years.” But the students dedicated their yearbook to her once. And a lot of people showed up at her retirement party in August. “At least I knew I was appreciated,” she says. —MTS