Tribute to a Mentor, Friend, and Colleague
By Stephanie Blaisdell and Chrys Demetry, (October, 2002)
We all continue to grieve the loss of Denise Nicoletti, co-founder and director of Camp Reach from 1997-2002, who died in a head-on car crash on July 21, 2002, the first full day of the 2002 program. Denise was an admired and respected colleague and friend to both of us, and she was a mentor and role model to many of you. The best way we know to keep her memory alive is to dedicate ourselves to the continuation of Camp Reach and to its continuous improvement. This program and its outcomes (that's you!) were her passion, and we feel privileged to carry it on. We can also be inspired by all that she did, and perhaps even more so, how she did it, in an effort to make ourselves more influential and effective people in our communities and for causes we believe in.
Even as a child, Denise was a friend to the underrepresented. At her funeral, her only brother (in a family of three girls) described how Denise secretly pretended to be his invisible brother, with whom he could only communicate behind closed doors. Perhaps it was this early sensitivity to what it feels like to be outnumbered that led Denise to be such a champion for women in engineering.
Denise was the visionary behind the idea of an outreach program for girls at WPI, which started with brainstorming lunches she initiated with Chrys back in 1995 and got off the ground with a successful proposal to the National Science Foundation, which helped to establish Camp Reach in 1997. But Denise's advocacy for women extended further. Each of us had many conversations with her about attracting more young women to engineering, as well as how to improve the climate for women on campus. As the only female faculty member in the ECE department, Denise started WECE: Women in Engineering and Computer Engineering, before there was a women's program at WPI. She also authored a handbook on maternity leave for faculty colleagues. In addition, she never forgot the seemingly small things, like reaching out to new female colleagues on campus through a lunch invitation.
Recently Denise had become interested in development of K-12 engineering curricula, as well as student learning outcomes assessment in the ECE department. Within the past year, she was a leader or major player in three successful grants to the National Science Foundation for more than a million dollars in funding for projects in these areas!
What many of us didn't fully understand was the extent to which Denise's energy and passion for life extended well beyond her professional life. Since her death, her family, friends and colleagues have come forward to talk about all that she was involved with, and the level of commitment that she had dedicated to these efforts. All of you know that she was a dedicated wife to Rich, and a wonderful mother to Celeste, Lucio, and Marcello. (We will continue to include the Nicoletti family in invitations to Camp Reach events.) In addition to raising a family, she was active in her church and projects to improve the community of Petersham. Together she and Rich built a homestead with sheep, a barn, and gardens. She loved throwing dinner parties for friends using recipes from Gourmet magazine. She sewed some of her own clothes. And through all of this, she laughed. Do you remember her wonderful, infectious laughter?
Even beyond all that Denise did, we can draw lessons from how she lived her life. At the WPI memorial service for Denise, one colleague spoke about his amazement at how well Denise received even the most critical feedback. He saw that she looked for the truth in any biting comment and sought to change to accommodate the feedback. He wondered where she would have been had she continued on this path of self-improvement - perhaps a future president of WPI?
A theme in WPI campus programming this year has been "The Power of One," which is meant to show students that they can make a difference, here at WPI and in the world. We couldn't ask for better evidence than Denise. So many of you shared with us at the summer reunion how she influenced your lives, and her influence has reached as far as Australia. She identified seemingly large problems and resolved to begin addressing them with a positive attitude. Denise was truly a remarkable person, and the world is better for her presence here, however short. And we are better people for having known her.