After 35 years of service, ATUS' Earlene Kent will retire this month, and she penned this farewell love letter to Western

Leaving WWU after 35 years has been one of the toughest decisions in my lifetime.  

I graduated from WWU in 1982 with a BA in English, first generation graduate, and I could not wait to leave WWU and see what life had in store for me!  My sights were set on Seattle, but I had not imagined the plan.  I was working 14 hours on my feet on the Washington State Ferries when I realized I need to find work in Bellingham, where we live.  There were opportunities with Woodring, Computing, and the Library for office assistants.  So I rented myself a electronic typewriter so I could pass a typing test, checked out some books from the library on computing so I would at least understand some basics, and took a computer class at the vo-tech – thinking ahh… computers .. the “wave of the future.”  The class was called "TRSDOS (Tandy Radio Shack Disk Operating System) Microcomputer Processing."  With that class under my belt, I applied for, passed the audition and got a position with WWU in Computing as an office assistant, which soon proved fatal because I could not get nor understand how to fill out JV on an electric typewriter in triplicate form without making a mistake. Coincidentally the street clothes I had worn during my interview no longer fit my expanding maternal belly the following Monday morning.  I was, to say the least, “a disappointment.” 

Nosing around the computing rooms in Bond Hall I found a large pool of women doing data entry on large IBM 3740 Data Entry System, which recorded data on huge 8-inch diskettes that you had to use two hands to load into the machine to snap the floppy into place.  Agreeing that I was a lousy office assistant, my first WWU boss said, “I hate to send you back to the hiring pool.”  And I said, “I need a job, let me try data entry!”  So back I went into a room of the most supportive women I had ever worked with. 

Rae Whitehead taught me everything I know about how to help others, and how to be in the workplace.  There was no such thing as training then. They sat the new person down to “verify” the data the primary Data Control tech had input. It was supposed to be like tracing a line on paper.  Only electronically.  As I traced, my machine beeped, beeped again, and I asked what’s happening, and they told me just keep at it, so I did.  All the keys were new to me. The room was abuzz with chatter.  The professionals talked and flipped over receipts and paper time sheets and spoke with their kids over the phone telling them how many minutes to put the ravioli on in the microwave.  I felt at home listening to the hum of busy women at work balancing the demands of home and work.  It was lively.  My machine kept beeping. Every key it seemed was a beep.  I knew something was wrong, but there had been no time to train me, so I kept “verifying”.  The mistake in judgment of course, was letting a first-timer verify payroll for the entire university.  The first of many steep learning curves that would become the first chapter of my career at WWU. 

Chapter two came when I found yet more opportunity in training. Having had the experience of zero training for either of my first jobs with WWU, I fairly soonafter developed a passion for helping others find their way.  I also learned quite a bit again from Rae Whitehead about helping others.  Rae was socially gregarious and loved everyone, and she let herself shine that love on the people she worked with and who worked for her. 

I watched carefully, studied how she approached the work and soon began tracing the lines on paper as she did with more accuracy than I ever did with data entry.  The job bloomed due to the lucky coincidence with demand for training across campus.  Soon we were training Word Perfect (on the banner system!), and Pine email, and Kermit file transfer.  The training and subsequent questions sprouted the origins of the first help desk.   I grew many more friendships over the years with staff and faculty, with Online Computing system and analyst folks. I stretched for more responsibility and was provided opportunity for this weird new line of work that wasn’t really well defined into the titles we have now.  

Fred Marchand, now with what is known as EIS, trusted me in the computer room with backups and file restores. The pay was bad back then.  I started as an office assistant at $6.84 per hour and cleared $13 per two-week pay check after paying daycare for my kids. I was resolute about keeping my foot in the door.  During these years, WWU provided me the opportunity to grow and learn, but the salary did not necessarily keep up.  I struggled to find care for my kids while I worked, and often they would be seen on campus on roller skates with a teenage babysitter.  My husband drove for WTA and sometimes he would be seen on campus delivering kids as I was leaving work and he was about to begin.  We juggled, like so many staffers.  My kids grew up on campus, climbing the art structures (they always were part animal), roller skating up and down Bond Hall (to the great annoyance of the system admins and analysts), hearing outstanding performances at the PAC when I would luck into tickets to ballet or music. Our son, Matt, graduated from WWU in part because the campus was so familiar to him.

Chapter three.  Recognizing that all good things must grow and change and come to conclusion, I began scouting the next opportunity.  I wanted to work for ATUS.  Approaching the technical people already there, I asked if I could follow them around on my own time, learn how to build a computer, or fix one and see what that work was like.  I was welcomed to ‘job shadow’ with the desktop consultants and did so for the better part of a year, after my day job was over, and sometimes on lunch hours. When the 2nd reduction in force came roughly a decade ago, I saw good people good at their jobs, lose their jobs. I also wanted more work and more technical work. The machine room was going dark and the job at ADMCS was changing.

Take care of one another. Look for the quiet ones among you and help them where you can - they are usually a happy surprise. 

Two positions transferred from ADMCS to ATUS that year and mine was one of them.  It was the first time in an entire career of 25 years of work that I was valued with a new desktop computer, keyboard and mouse.  In every year prior I had been valued with old rebuilt equipment.  Nothing says second hand like second hand.  This third chapter of my story of working for WWU has been full of high points and personal drama. The work has been varied and interesting. There was never a lonely or dull moment. There has always been more to do and develop than ever before, but most of all, my time with ATUS has been punctuated with being treated with respect for my skills and what I have to offer.  Imagine that.  Imagine what that would mean to a gal who started unable to fill out a triplicate JV form on an electric typewriter.  I have felt respected on the job and valued and am so grateful for all of the experiences that lead me through this wild ride at WWU!  I am so profoundly grateful to the employees who have trusted me to guide them with their technology issue, and to the management that recognizes an unmanageable employee and allows them to find their way and do good work.   

I have learned more about graciousness from our clientele that I ever could have through a fancy training program.  The connections made across campus with others in departments working like I have worked have meant everything to me.  I hope I have told you this along the way, but mean it when I say, if you didn’t trust me to resolve the issue – or find someone who could – I would not have been able to earn for my family.   If you know me well, you know that I have lost some of that family along the way.  A dad. A brother whom I loved, a sister whom I loved as well – both in the same year.  And the best boss I have ever had in all my years of working, also died from the glioblastoma that took my brother’s life.  These last four years have seen so much loss that it helps me to focus or reshape what is left of my own life. 

I’m going to leave you now with profound thanks for trusting me, for the graciousness of our leadership who have had more emails from Earlene on more topics than anyone should ever have to field (but really what did you expect, my degree is in English, you knew I’d write!), with love in my heart for the journey that was my time at WWU and for you, the people who made my work possible.  This has been a really tough decision for me, but without change, life continues on until it’s over. So I’m taking a leap of faith, a little earlier than I should have, but a leap nonetheless, to spend time with a hilarious grandson who calls me “Nah” and a mom who is turning 90 this year! And my beloved partner whose memory is dimming more rapidly than either of us would wish for.

Take care of one another. Look for the quiet ones among you and help them where you can - they are usually a happy surprise. 

Love, Earlene

Note: ATUS will host a retirement potluck for Earlene on Thursday, March 24, 2022, from 11:30 a.m. - 1:30 p.m. in Red Square in front of Haggard Hall. Stop by and wish her well!