The retirement of Angie Erickson- an end of an era

On July 1st we held a celebration on the steps of Giannini Hall as Angie Erickson retired after 33 years of service in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics (ARE) and seven years as my Assistant (I actually favor the old fashion term Secretary because it implies the keeper of secrets, or confidant). Retirements are those special events that make me reflect on the changing time- and during Angie’s tenure we have witnessed many transitions.

I arrived at ARE as a fresh PhD student from Israel 43 years ago. Our building, Giannini Hall, looked the same as it does today (they had installed the elevator a few months before I arrived), but the internal structure was different.  It was before the advent of the personal computer and we had a large room with a typing pool that consisted of 10 very competent word processors (typists in those days) who were supervised by a powerful and amazing Japanese American woman Cookie Takayama.

Cookie was seated in a glass walled room at the entrance to the large typing room, so she could keep an eye on her  “girls”, as she called them (some older than 50). She would receive our manuscripts, and after initial review (that could result in suggestions for immediate improvement) allocated it to a member of her stuff.  Even though our staff maintained excellent standards of quality, in those days typing was a complex art form. Thus, her allocation decision of who types your paper, and when, could affect your fate. I started co-authoring papers at the time, and given my terrible accent, bad grammar and unique vocabulary (the three ingredients of what have been termed “Zilbonics”) I realized that I needed to be on her good side.  She was a wonderful conversationalist and caring person, and I got to speak with her about life and provided nuggets of useful gossip (“Dr. Rausser is likely to be hired as our next Chair”).  She slowly became my “Japanese Mother”, providing useful advice (“Americans notice when you do not wear deodorant”), and paying special attention to my manuscripts. Even now I consider her the most powerful person I met at Giannini Hall (except perhaps Harry Wellman who was the president of the UC system and had two buildings named after him). 

Cookie kept tight discipline in her unit: they all arrived at 8 am, dressed elegantly but conservatively, an island of the 1950s in the midst of radicalizing Berkeley. I learned that “the girls” (which later included some boys) were wonderful and colorful people and had a great culture of friendship and mutual support. They comprised part of a professional staff that made us a great department – and Giannini Hall a wonderful place to work. Angie was 18 years old when she joined the pool in 1983, as she was recruited by her friend Amor Nolan. Cookie and her staff provided her with great practical training. I was on the faculty at that time and noticed that she became an excellent word processor quickly. She was also very noticeable for her great looks and pleasant personality, but the aspiring graduate students soon learned that she was dating Chris, who later became her husband, and with whom she shares three wonderful children.

Few years after Angie arrived, the word processing world went through the personal computer revolution. Some of the young faculty members of ARE elected to do their word processing themselves, others preferred to work closer with their typists. Around 1990 we decentralized our budget and word processing support systems. In particular, the typing pool was abolished, and faculty members who were willing to pay were assigned support staff for word processing and administration. I was assigned Amor Nolan, and Angie worked for Tony Fisher, Peter Berck and Jeff Lafrance. The improved capabilities of computers and word processing software, the introduction of the web and search engines, made the physical task of producing manuscripts less time consuming. My collaborators, mostly students, became responsible for typing the first version of most papers, and Amor was putting the finishing touch in preparing manuscript to the journals. As I became a department chair and was assigned more administrative responsibilities, I faced a growing burden of writing letters, grant applications and project reports. With Amor I developed a system whereby I dictated the first draft, we discussed some of the content, and she made it presentable. This improved my productivity, and made her job more challenging, yet I believe more interesting still.

In 2009, Amor retired after working with me for about 19 years, and she recommended that Angie take her place. The transition was smooth, Angie exceled in interpreting Zilbonics, and Angie and I were very efficient in producing letters of recommendation, referee reports and other documents. Much of Angie’s time more recently has been occupied with organizing the annual Berkeley Bioeconomy Conference, with about 30 speakers and 100 participants. During the last few years she has taken over preparing my reimbursement forms, and other accounting and logistics matters. All together she was responsible to manage multiple administrative tasks that allowed me to allocate more time to my research and education activities.  The trust we shared, and the learning that come through joint ventures have made us a great team, and good friends. I believe that the publications that I produced and the success of programs like the ELP and MDP that I initiated were really a result of teamwork where Angie and Amor were crucial members of these teams.

This year Angie and her family decided to relocate to Auburn, CA and she retired from the University.  She has helped me to train a replacement, my past student Ben Gordon, and I believe that after adjustments I will be able to continue and be effective (and one day I might even retire). However, as I look around and reflect on the past decades, I notice that over the years most assistants in our department have either retired or been let go due to lack of resources or perceived need.  We now have mostly faculty and students and hardly any staff. It may be more cost effective, but I miss having a larger community with regular people who provide valuable services, care about the team and bring joy and friendship to the ivory tower.

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