Faces of UW: Retiree volunteers

Beverly Witte stands next to a tray containing her favorite discovery, Smilodectes gracilis, an ancient primate fossil notable for its preserved opposable thumb. Photo by Alex Ho

A prospective UW student enters the UW Information & Visitors Center in Odegaard. Charlotte Nelson tells her where to take a tour and asks her about the academic programs she’s interested in. Nelson directs the student to put a push pin near her hometown in Michigan on a map already covered with clusters of colored pins.

A retired adviser for the College of Education, Nelson volunteers in the visitors center. She is one of many retired UW faculty members who have come back to continue acting as part of the UW community.

Before Nelson worked for the College of Education, she worked as the fisheries and oceanography librarian for two years and was also a school teacher for grades seven to 12.

“I feel comfortable here,” she said. “I’m in my comfort zone, and I loved working here.”

Nelson found out the visitors center was looking for volunteers through an advertisement in a brochure for the UW Retirement Association (UWRA). That was four years ago, and Nelson is still volunteering. Volunteer work was something she always wanted to do, but couldn’t find the time for when she was still working.

The UWRA was formed in 1975 after nearly two decades of campaigning by current and former UW employees for better pension and retirement plans at the UW. Patricia Dougherty, executive director of UWRA and director of UW Retiree Relations, said the group members decided they liked each other’s company so much, they wanted to create a community to advocate for retirees.

“They like to stay around,” Dougherty laughed. “They’re interested in supporting higher education and helping students achieve what their goals are.”

Charlotte Nelson, a volunteer at the UW Information & Visitors Center in Odegaard, has been working at the UW in some capacity for more than 30 years. Visitors can place pins on the maps to indicate their places of origin.

Dougherty said one thing that has changed is, with people living longer, they may have another 20 years to do volunteer work or have another career.

“We’re moving into kind of a new phase of what retirement can mean — even the word itself is becoming kind of outdated.”

The UWRA is a member-based program, reaching more than 1,250 households and 2,000 former employees, Dougherty said. Even though members do volunteer at the UW, it is not organized through UWRA. It is instead completely based on the individual. Dougherty said the UWRA Board of Directors has recognized that its members are interested in volunteer work, and the board members are working to incorporate philanthropy into the program.

“The great advantage to the university is [the retirees’] knowledge of the university,” Dougherty said.

After spending 29 years answering only College of Education-related questions in her previous position, the transition to knowing vast amounts of information about the whole campus was frustrating for Nelson.

“I didn’t know a lot of the general stuff about campus, so I’ve learned a lot,” she said. “I love coming here.”

One of Nelson’s favorite parts of her volunteer work is seeing people from all over the world.

There is a “menu of questions” Nelson said she gets approached with when she is working. But she likes to help and likes to feel that people are leaving happy.

The office tracks the number of visitors they help on a given day, which is usually between 30 and 150, according to Nelson’s boss, Linda Hanlon, the program coordinator at the Information & Visitors Center.

Another reason Nelson has continued to volunteer for the visitors center is Hanlon’s willingness to work with her schedule. The freedom to come and go at the visitors center has worked for Nelson, because she volunteers for other organizations, participates in a book club, and likes to travel.

Hanlon said volunteers are extremely valuable to her office of one. As the single employee in the visitors center with some work-study students, Hanlon relies on the extra help of the volunteers.

“They want to come back; they love this place,” she said. “They want to be here to continue to give their time. They’re very generous that way.”

For Nelson, it’s not only about the people she meets, but the people she works with. She and Hanlon became friends when she began working at the visitors center, and they often go to dinner and see plays together.

Nelson said she herself has a helpful personality and often finds her personality coming out when she talks to students.

Nelson said the students are the reason she is here. Last Saturday night she threw a dinner party at her house, inviting Hanlon and the other four work-study students. Nelson said she thinks the students enjoy talking to her and love “coming over to my place for a good dinner.” She was planning to prepare her signature dish, chicken marbella, along with a rice side-dish and enough for the students to take home extras.

“I get really attached to them,” Nelson said of the work-study students.

For Hanlon, having that family experience is so important for the students and other people like her, who are away from their families.

“You’re away from your aunties, your grandmother, and your mother, so this gives you more people,” Hanlon said. “They’ll listen to you when you need it. Charlotte will give advice and whatever support she can. She’s wanting to know how your test was, how your day was. When you don’t have family close by, I think you miss that.”

Dougherty said the need to have retirees act as family figures for students in their volunteer positions isn’t one that has been expressed to the UWRA. But it is nice for her to hear that it is happening.

“Sometimes when you volunteer alongside someone else intergenerationally, that gives you an opportunity to form relationships that are good for both the student and the retiree,” Dougherty said.

Hanlon said Nelson has been an “essential” addition to their family-like work group. She said Nelson brings her years of experience working at the UW to the office.

“She brings those other stories and [campus] relationships to our office,” Hanlon said. “And then personally, to us, she’s like family.”

Nelson’s long-time friend Dick Simkins, another UW retiree, has spent his entire adult life at the UW. He studied political science at the university both as an undergraduate and graduate student. After his education, he had a 40-year career in the Undergraduate Advising Center as both an adviser and the director of academic counseling.

Immediately upon retiring in 2002, Simkins began volunteering for the UW. He first volunteered in the admissions office for a few years before moving to his current position as a volunteer in the UW Registrar’s Office.

“I just like being on campus,” Simkins said. “There’s such an energy level, and I just love working with young folks. I feel the university has done a lot for me, so I just want to do something for the university.”

Simkins is currently working on the online course-catalogue, something he worked on as an employee as well. He is combing the 536-page catalogue for typos, errors, and things that may seem unclear. He works every Monday, usually for a full 8-hour day, in his small office, tucked away in the back of the Office of the Registrar.

“I like the fact that I don’t have to work full-time,” he said with a chuckle. “And you know, I love being here on Mondays.”

Simkins was a self-proclaimed workaholic during his long career at the UW, and he stays very active as a retiree. He also volunteers at the Information Desk at the Seattle Art Museum once a week. In his spare time, Simkins goes to the gym three days a week and walks on his off days. He has weekly coffee dates at a friend’s home in Greenlake and goes out to dinner with a group of friends.

In his whole career, Simkins said there were only about 10 bad days, and those were usually the days he had to let employees go. Other than that, he really enjoyed working for the UW, and that has continued as a volunteer.

“As long as they want me here, I’ll stay until I keel over,” he said.

Even though she hasn’t spent as much time at the UW as Simkins, volunteer Beverly Witte has just as much passion for the work. Witte came to the UW first as a volunteer and eventually made a career change to work at the Burke Museum, after she already had a career in art and retail.

Witte began volunteering at the Burke Museum in 1964. Witte was on vacation with her husband in Death Valley when she found a fossil.

Dr. Stan Mallory from the museum came to her house and identified the fossil as coral. It was from Mallory that Witte found out about the museum’s volunteer program.

Witte and her husband Ben both began volunteering for the museum in 1964. Though her husband only volunteered for a few years, Witte kept coming, and when a job opened up for museum preparator, her colleagues urged her to apply. She was hired in 1968.

Witte worked as preparator for 30 years, retiring in 1998. Before her time at the Burke, Witte went to art school at Seattle University and worked in retail at the Bon Marché.

“I had no idea [I would be working with fossils],” Witte said. “I started a whole new career at age 40.”

Working at the Burke, Witte put her art school education to use, whether it was casting molds of fossils or blowing glass to make artificial teeth for an experiment.

A closeup of Beverly Witte’s discovery of a specimen of primate Smilodectes gracilis. A volunteer at the time, Witte collected the specimen at John Day Fossil Beds National Monument in Oregon. She retired in 1998 after working as a fossil preparator at the Burke Museum for 20 years and is now a volunteer there.

Witte said she loved going on field trips to find fossils with the Burke staff. She went on her last one in 2004, at age 76, camping out at Metaline Falls in northeastern Washington to hunt for fossils.

“It’s been interesting,” she said. “I’ve had to do some unusual things.”

Her favorite moment in her career came when she found the fossilized articulated foot of a primate from the Eocene era. Her discovery was sent to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City to be studied. It was kept there for eight years before returning to the Burke. It is now stored in the basement of the museum.

Witte, now 84, has macular degeneration and is nearly blind. She said she will continue to volunteer as long as she can.

“[I’ll volunteer] so long as I can still function,” she said. “This has been my home for a number of years.”

Nelson said she, too, is happy working in the visitors office and plans to continue there because of the freedom the volunteer schedule allows. Nelson likes that she can take both short and long trips around the United States and still volunteer.

“It just works with my lifestyle at this point,” she said. “[I want to keep volunteering for] as long as they want me.”

A man comes in to the visitors office, and Nelson greets him, “Oh, did you find your daughter?”

When he confirms that he did and asks Nelson where he can get change for a $100, she points him to the closest place. As he leaves, she checks his visit off on the visitors tally: another happy customer.

Reach reporter Sarah Radmer at features@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @sarahradmer


The article used to say, "Witte worked as preparator for 20 years, retiring in 1998." It was corrected May 24, 2012 to say, "Witte worked as preparator for 30 years, retiring in 1998."

Please read our Comment policy.