June 03, 2013

All great offices have that special person who makes everyone who walks in the door feel at home – that unique individual who seems to truly enjoy each day at work, who helps an office feel more like a family, who knows how to get things done while sharing some giddy laughter along the way.  In the engineering community of WPI, it’s the lady with the infectious laugh, Michigan twang, and cat’s-eye glasses – Pamela Kay St. Louis, also known as “Left Brain” for her organizational skills, or “Mom” for her nurturing of countless homesick freshmen.  For 17 years the Michigan native was the go-to gal, the Person Who Made It All Work within the Mechanical Engineering Department. Six months ago she accepted a new position as manager of operations for WPI Engineering.

We caught up with Pam on a quiet afternoon recently after all the students had finished finals and gone home for summer break.

What’s the first thing someone will notice when they walk into your office?

(laughter)  Zebra stripes.

Tell us about the zebra stripes.

I have a zebra lamp, I have a zebra coffee mug, a zebra mouse pad, a zebra chair floor mat, and I have a zebra chair next to my desk.

So how did this all begin?

It started with my coffee mug.  A faculty member gave me a zebra coffee mug… well, it even goes further than that.  One of the guys in the office once saw me wearing an animal-print scarf and told me that animal prints on women are tacky, so just to rub it in, I started wearing animal prints all the time, and he just hated it, and it just kinda stuck…! That’s one of those themes that has stuck now for a good 15 years.

Tell us about your new position at WPI.

What I basically do is – I’ll read from my little description here –  “oversee communications internally, including financial oversight of budgets, internal communications with faculty and staff, and manage day-to-day human resources and financial functions for the engineering departments.”  But what I really love the most is the category, “…other duties as assigned.”  That’s where life gets interesting. (laughter)

So what might be some of those other duties as assigned?

In my previous job in Mechanical Engineering I ran the academic side of summer school for two years, I’ve worked in the Provost’s Office on special projects, I’ve helped out in other areas with search committees… about anything that comes up.

How long have you been doing this kind of work?

I’ve been in academics for 37 years.  I started when I was four years old.  Remember that.  (laughter)  I worked at the University of Michigan for 20 years before I came here, doing the same type of thing but for Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

What was your first impression of New England when you arrived here?

Hated it.  (laughter)  It was the winter of 1995… 115 inches of snow.  I told my husband, “Let me go back to Michigan!”  There was so much snow we couldn’t get our furniture in for two weeks.  We had an empty house.  But I’ll never move back to Michigan.  I now love this area.  Worcester kinda grows on you.  It’s the largest small town I’ve ever lived in.  Once you get to know people, you know everybody in this town.

What do you enjoy most about your work at WPI?

I like problem solving.  Whether it’s “we need to fix the lab room,” “we need to get funding in to do this,” “we need to hire people”… if there’s a problem, I like to find a solution.  And that’s because I’m the middle child of five.

So is yours really a “people-skills” career?

It is, it is.  You know, that’s the best thing about it.  Over the years here at WPI I’ve gotten to know so many young people that I’m still in touch with… I mean, I get to know their parents, I know their brothers and sisters, I go to their weddings – I just attended a wedding a couple of weeks ago.  That’s a joy to me, to talk with the kids, help them out… I learn about boyfriends and girlfriends, bad tests, everything.  When there’s a problem and the tears start rolling down their cheeks, I take ‘em into the other room and give ’em a Kleenex…  I act as their mom, and quite often they call me “Mom.”  I take ’em home, feed ’em, give ’em a home-cooked meal… It’s part of being a Midwesterner.  The open door.  When you meet someone from the Midwest, you know their life story in ten minutes.

What do you look forward to most about your new position?

I speak M.E., I know that department backwards and forwards, so I look forward to getting to know the other engineering departments, really learning a lot about all of them.

Say, have you learned to play the mandolin yet?  We hear that’s a dream of yours.

How did that get out?  (laughter) No, I haven’t done it yet.  I’m too busy buying shoes.  I did find lessons at one of the colleges in the area, so that’s my goal for next fall.

If you could wake up having learned to play one song on mandolin in your sleep, what would it be?

“Mandolin Wind,” by Rod Stewart.  I just love the way the mandolin sounds.

So that song captured your imagination back in the ’70s?

Well, I used to be a rock’n’roll musician back in the Sixties.

Now this we gotta hear about!  You just had to drop that in there…

(laughter) I played flute.  This was in Michigan. My first husband was Bob Seger’s road manager, so I was very involved in the business.  I got to dance onstage with Tina Turner in 1969.  They were just warming up, we were there early since my husband was the sound engineer.

Did Tina give you a shimmy move?

She kissed me on the cheek.  She was an absolute doll.  Oh, yeah, Tina and I can shimmy, let me tell you that!