Forty years at the top

She first walked into Woodbridge Hall in 1973. Since then, Regina Starolis has served as executive assistant to six presidents of Yale.

Paul Needham ’11 is a producer for CBS News in New York City.

Mark Ostow

Mark Ostow

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Regina Starolis walked into Yale’s personnel office in early 1973 to ask if there were any jobs or internships open at the Peabody Museum. At the time, the personnel office was just a handful of people in a small office suite. There were no positions available at the Peabody, but they sent Starolis to the president’s office; Deane Laycock, executive assistant to Kingman Brewster ’41, was thinking of leaving.

Starolis had never met Brewster, so she spent the night before her big interview rehearsing answers to possible questions. To her surprise, the shy president spent more than half their time together looking out the window of his Woodbridge Hall office, swiveling his chair back and forth. She was even more surprised when she got the job.

Much has changed at Yale in the last 40 years. For one, the personnel office has become the human resources department, with its own building and more than 100 employees. What had not changed—up until the end of June—was Regina Starolis’s presence at the side of every president of Yale. From July 1, 1973, through June 30, 2013, Regina Starolis helped six presidents stay organized and helped everyone from foreign leaders to over-eager students stay connected to Woodbridge Hall.

It’s no surprise, then, that one of the social highlights of the year at Yale was a farewell party then-president Rick Levin ’74PhD and his wife Jane Levin ’75PhD gave for Starolis. The receiving line went on for two hours. Susan Hockfield, former Yale provost and former president of MIT, attended. So did Chief Investment Officer David Swensen ’80PhD, Sterling Professor of English David Bromwich ’73, ’77PhD, and two federal judges. Levin announced a new Yale College scholarship fund in honor of Starolis. The turnout was as strong as for any event Levin hosted all year.

“It was the who’s who of Yale!” Starolis said over lunch recently, beaming. “Does that make me proud? Oh my god, yes!”

Starolis is hopelessly in love with Yale. She cherishes everything about the place: the exact shade of dark navy that is Yale Blue, the rush of students heading to class in the morning. She has a CD of recordings by School of Music dean Robert Blocker in her Jeep.

She reveres Yale professors. Sidney Altman, a Nobel Prize–winning scientist, once admitted to her that he still gets nervous before lectures; that left an impression. So did the time she ran into Chinese history professor Jonathan Spence ’61, ’61MA, ’65PhD, in the stacks of Sterling in the early 1980s. He was looking at something he had never seen before—a wedding photo of Chiang Kai-shek—and it dawned on Starolis that what she loves most about Yale is that “everybody here is still excited about discovering things they haven’t seen before.”

Which is not to say there aren’t parts of New Haven everyone wishes would stay the same (see Doodle, Yankee). The sight of Starolis in the first-floor window of Woodbridge Hall was such an institution. Former provost Alison Richard was known to throw pebbles at the window to get Starolis’s attention. Says David Swensen, softly, by phone: “I very, very much miss seeing Regina there. I realize now that whenever I’d leave the office, even if I wasn’t going to the center of campus, I’d think to myself, ‘Oh, do I have time to go stop by Woodbridge Hall and see if Regina and Rick are around?’”

Moving out was a chore. Starolis falls somewhere on the spectrum between collector and hoarder; her office featured an ink bottle that belonged to Kingman Brewster, a bobble-head doll of former Law School dean Harold Koh, shelves full of framed photos, and many, many piles of papers that she could never bring herself to throw away.

Her home in Middle Haddam could pass for a museum of Yale history. She has one of the old Mory’s chairs and four lamps, and even a fireplace screen, from Woodbridge Hall. (She is careful to point out that she paid for all of them.)

But her house cannot compete with the Yale history she has experienced. Her first boss, Brewster, had famously clashed with Vice President Spiro Agnew: Brewster had expressed skepticism that Black Panthers could get a fair trial in the United States, and Agnew had declared publicly that Yale should find a more “mature and responsible” president. It fell to Starolis, in the fall of 1973, to interrupt a meeting Brewster was holding in the Corporation Room to report that Agnew had resigned over a kickback scandal. The room erupted in cheers.

There was the day when the White House called, asking when “Mr. Giamatti would be arriving” for his appointment with then–Vice President Bush. Starolis realized with horror that she had put the appointment down for the wrong day. (She still seems embarrassed about it.) And she’ll never forget the call in 1989 reporting the heart attack that led to Giamatti’s death.

The actor Peter O’Toole once sang a complete rendition of “The Whiffenpoof Song” to her over the phone—and then sang it in person when he saw her next. Howard Lamar is “king of the one-liner—he’s Mark Twain, as far as I’m concerned.” And Brewster? She compares him to Cary Grant.

I first interviewed Starolis in 2009 for the Yale Daily News, the only interview she ever consented to (until now). She doesn’t like the limelight. It took me a year to convince her to sit for an interview and—even harder—for photographs.

At the time, I asked her what would happen when President Levin left office. “He’s very quiet about it,” she said. “I have asked him to give me a hint when that ever crosses his mind. We’ve always said they’ll wheel us out together.”

Levin’s announcement last fall that he would leave after 20 years in office took Starolis by surprise, though she was one of the first three or four people he told. But just as it gives Levin a chance for a second act, it has freed Starolis up as well: in January, she will begin work coordinating public programs at the Yale University Art Gallery. Forty years after walking into the personnel office, she’ll finally be working at a Yale museum. Jock Reynolds, the gallery’s director, explains his interest in hiring Starolis succinctly: “Do you know anyone who’s a better mentor of people at Yale than Regina?”

She and Levin enjoyed their last year together; they are each capable of biting humor, and it was on display more and more as the year went on. “He’s very funny,” Starolis said, remembering some of what Levin had muttered under his breath after meetings. (True to form, she wouldn’t share any of it for publication.)

She also says Levin was the most productive president she worked for. “Does he micro-manage? Yes. And that’s why he was successful.” As for Levin’s famously sharp memory: no, he’s not infallible—but he comes close enough that when he did forget something, she jokes, “sometimes it felt like he was just testing me.”

Peter Salovey ’86PhD and his wife, Marta Moret ’84MPH, took Starolis to dinner not long after Salovey was announced as Levin’s successor. He would have been “delighted” if Starolis had wanted to serve a seventh Yale president, he says. They have known each other for decades—ever since Salovey was president of the Graduate and Professional Student Senate in the 1980s. “What I remember from those days,” says Salovey, “and what I would say is characteristic of Regina for the entire time she worked at Yale, is that she made you feel your presence in Woodbridge Hall was desired and important, even if you were a graduate school student arriving unannounced.”

Starolis believes all should feel welcome at Woodbridge Hall; she even remembers the sit-ins of the ’70s with nostalgia (not that she’s eager to repeat them). Warmth, says Salovey, is “something we’ve all learned from Regina. When I see my staff here greeting visitors, and I see them making people feel special and welcome, I can’t help but think of her.”

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