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05/31/2011 07:00:00

From Clerk-Stenographer at JPL to the President's Office: 45 Years at Caltech

In the spring of 1966, Mary Webster took a job as a clerk-stenographer at JPL. As she was getting her paperwork processed in the security department, she met Jewel Robinson, who had started working at JPL 15 years earlier, when Robinson took what she thought at the time was just a "temporary" job. Webster didn't plan to work at JPL very long, either. "I was basically uncertain about my career path and needed a job that would pay the bills while I decided what I 'really' wanted to do," she says. So to her, Robinson's career path initially seemed odd. "What I thought was a very strange story in 1966 has become my story," Webster says. "Here I am, 45 years later, still working at Caltech and loving it!"

Along with three other members of the Caltech community, Webster will be recognized for her 45 years of service at the Staff Service Awards on June 1.

After working in JPL's procurement division for four years, she moved to the director's office, providing staff assistance to directors William H. Pickering and Bruce Murray. In 1981, she joined the Office of the President, working for Caltech president Marvin Goldberger. She has remained in that office ever since, now the executive assistant to the president and secretary to the Board of Trustees. She also is a member of the Administrative Management Council and the Institute Administrative Council. 

Much of her success, she says, is attributable to the willingness of supervisors and managers to mentor, train, and challenge employees. Over the years, she's learned about contract law, management, financial planning, employee relations, and university governance. "It has been a lot of hard work, but I couldn't envision having had a more rewarding experience," she says.

She urges newer staff at Caltech to take advantage of these opportunities and expand their roles. "Don't be constrained by a job description," she advises. "If someone needs help, don't hesitate to volunteer and help out—even if the work isn't in your job description."

During the four and a half decades of her tenure at Caltech, Webster has worked for five Caltech presidents. She has been around for numerous planetary encounters, moon and Mars landings, and spacecraft launches, as well as for Caltech presidential inaugurations and departures, Caltech's centennial, visits by U.S. presidents and by princes and princesses, and other events. "These are just a few of the many extraordinary memories I have—ones that could have happened nowhere but Caltech," she says. "I have to admit, however, that my favorite memories are of the wonderful friends and colleagues with whom I have worked over the past 45 years. It is the people who are the essence of Caltech—and it is the people who make this institution such a remarkable place to spend a career."

Written by Marcus Woo