Understatement alert: NYU is a big, big place. Think of the dozens of people you might nod hello to on a typical day—in the dining hall, at the library, between buildings, or behind a particular desk. How many do you know by name? What do you know about their lives?
By day they are office administrators or landscapers, technology specialists or event managers; by night they’re parents and poets, activists and athletes—and so much more. They’re the dedicated staffers who keep this place running, and in this series NYU Stories will go behind-the-scenes at their day jobs—and also reveal how they let off steam after work. (We’re coming for you, dude in the Bon Jovi cover band!) Look for a new and often surprising interview every other week or so. You might just see a familiar face.
...WITH JENNIE TICHENOR
Title: departmental administrator for anthropology (just retired!)
Years at NYU: 22+
Hometown: Well...I’ve lived here most of my life now, so I consider New York my home. I moved here from San Francisco.
In one sentence, describe a day at your job:
I did all the money; I did all the personnel; I balanced the books and I made sure everybody got paid on time. I had a very broad job description because I did a bit of everything.
What was the best part of working at NYU?
The people. I could barely spell “anthropology” when I got here, but then I learned that the people in the department were invested in things like women’s international issues, or helping underrepresented minorities, or promoting evolution. So the mission of anthropology was one I found I was in sync with. One of our faculty members was a very early promoter of the “untouchable” caste in India. Another has been very active with Australian indigenous art. Our department helped save a language. The people here are really bright, and energetic and committed, and NYU is lucky to have them.
Since you’ve just retired, what will your NYU legacy be?
There are certainly a few things I view as a legacy, like Naughty Knitters, or Green Apple Move Out, or the Green Books recycling project, some of the proceeds from which go to the excellent charity Semper Fido. (That’s a group that pairs injured veterans with therapy dogs.) In general I hope I’ve made people feel a little more courageous about crafting a life that’s a little off the beaten path.
How’d the idea for the Green Apple Move Out come about?
I live on the same block as Third North, and I would just see people going through these huge dumpsters where students had discarded lovely lamps and stuff. I thought maybe Goodwill or somebody could collect it instead. So I applied for one of the early Green Grants and got $4,500 to start up a recycling program. The first year it was like 75 tons of stuff—microwaves, cashmere sweaters, you name it. Now it’s instituted system-wide.
I heard you also volunteer at a soup kitchen.
It’s called the Welcome Table—at the Church of Saint Francis Xavier, on 16th Street. I’m one of the coordinators. Each Sunday we serve about a thousand lunches. There are about a hundred volunteers per day, and it’s been a privilege to meet so many nice people! You go there and you think I have people who care about me, I have a home, I have hope. Volunteering there also helps a lot of people stay grounded, I think—without sounding too noble about it. You should come by!
Was community service a big part of your upbringing?
Quietly, yes. My father was very active with local charity when we lived in Kentucky, and my mother was actually one of the co-founders of the first no-kill animal shelter there. But it was more like “Oh yeah, I did that,” not, “Look at me, I’m so wonderful.” So I always thought that’s just what you do. I don’t remember not doing volunteer work. It doesn’t cost anything, sometimes they feed you, you’re doing things that you enjoy, and you meet nice people. I mean, please. That’s an easy decision.
What else brings you peace?
I sit down and reflect on how lucky I am. Sometimes I just do a mantra: I have my health, I have a home, I live in the city I love, I have friends. When I think Oh God, life is misery, I think about people who are homeless, or about the fact that 99% of the women in the world would give anything for my life. Who am I to whine? It motivates me to go out and give back. I remind myself, point by point, how fortunate I am.
New Yorkers tend to have idiosyncratic habits. What’s one of yours?
Even though I’ve been here 33 years, I still look up and admire the architecture. I still think, Whoa, isn’t that neat?! I like to think about the creativity that went into each individual phenomenon in New York—all of it born from someone’s idea and energy.
Where do you take tourists when they visit?
Grand Central Terminal. At one point the ceiling in the main hall was black, but over about three years—using, like, Q-tips, and peroxide—they cleaned it all up to reveal this amazing Zodiac. But they left a small area that’s still as dark as before they cleaned it. So that’s what I show everybody—it’s kind of like an inside joke, but also magnificent that Grand Central was rescued so aggressively.
Why the original move to New York?
My mother says that when we visited here from Kentucky when I was about 16, I walked out of the hotel and said, “Yeah, this is where I’m going to live.” I loved movies like Breakfast at Tiffany’s, The World of Henry Orient, and The Apartment. Then I went into nursing—one of the most portable professions. I had a white dress and matching shoes and I just hopped on the plane and said, “Okay, Mount Sinai, here I am.”
Any big plans for retirement?
I’m thinking of Naughty Knitters on steroids—something to connect people with talent and time with people and organizations who need handmade items. There are a lot of women who think I’m riding the bus, I’m sitting in front of the TV, and I want to do something, but I don’t know how. So I’d like to go around to local schools, churches, high schools, and senior centers and help them connect. This is the sort of organizing I’ve been doing all my life. I’d like to start up a web resource—maybe crochetnyc.org.