November 2011

Interview with Barbara Gordon

Beaumont_house_BarbaraBarbara Gordon started working at Beaumont House in December 1972. Over the past three decades, she has risen through the ranks to executive director. Here, she shares her thoughts on leaving the place where that success was fostered.

Q. You must have had a number of important mentors over the years. Which ones stand out?

I came as an editorial assistant, or something like that, with virtually no skills. There were a lot of really wonderful women working in the (Journal of Biological Chemistry) office. A lot of them had advanced degrees. A lot of them were overqualified and had taken time off from their careers to raise their families and who had come back to work in the JBC office.

Edith Wolfe was one. Mickey Korn. Elizabeth Oppenheim, who just died this past year. Carol White was another. Polly Fleming. Again, these are very bright women… They all traveled everywhere. For me, they opened up a world I hadn’t been exposed to.

And, of course, Herb Tabor and later Chuck Hancock, after he came on. Chuck mentored and exposed me to association management.

Q. With all of the roles you’ve had, did you have different titles, or was your position sort of nebulous?

Well, as I think back in the ’70s, we weren’t as obsessed with titles. I think I came in as probably an editorial assistant. I don’t know what I was when I started! After a while, they asked if I’d be interested in being more involved in society matters and meetings. And my job kept changing, but that’s one of the beauties of working here. There is such a variety of things to do. I think it’s still like that, which is why it is such an interesting place to work. I enjoy the variety.

Q. What were some of your common tasks in the early days?

I worked on the infamous Wednesday report. You had to call each of the associate editors’ offices, and they reported the manuscript flow. Now people just plug it in, and the computer does it. But that was how you knew how many papers were on each editor’s desk and how many they had handled for the year. But it was all done by phone. We calculated all the numbers after calling the offices and then sent out a Wednesday report so that associate editors would refer to that all week, and reviewers wouldn’t get overly heavy loads.

Q. So, I take it you mailed the Wednesday report?

Yep. We had all these field offices across the country. We developed really close relationships. There’s always been this sense of closeness. The JBC is kind of this integral group. We had some pretty great friendships.

Q. So, correct me if I’m wrong, but the meetings those days were nothing like what we have now, right?

Well, actually, they were. We met with the (Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology) group, and in some ways meetings were even bigger, because that was before we had so many specialty meetings, and the exchange of information has changed dramatically.

Q. I understand that at one point you worked in a closet. What was that all about?

I did! Back in the day, the way that we did the subject index was with a keypunch machine, which most people don’t even know about anymore. You had a deck of cards, and you typed a programming language. We would type the name of the author, the title of the paper and the 10 or 12 keywords that went with the article. And it was a big, honking machine. It was about as big as this desk, and you would sit there and plug in the information. So, here we were in this big attic closet. But we didn’t start indexing till August, with the slate roof, and it was hot. You’d take the cards to these great big computers – when computers were rooms – and they’d feed the cards in there, and it would produce the subject index. Bizarre stuff. But there’s no need for it anymore. You just do a Web search, and off you go.

Q. Did you have any idea back then that you’d be running the place?

Oh, Lord, no. It’s like a lot of things: Life happens when you’re standing in the middle of it.

Q. But you must have been ambitious.

I do have a serious work ethic. And I also think that Herb Tabor has inspired a lot of us who have worked at ASBMB. You know, we all love him, and I think he helped us to see how important what we were doing was. I always thought we were working toward something important. I think people made you feel like part of a team. I think having the variety of duties and being part of a bigger mission kept you going. I enjoy what I do. I enjoy the people. I enjoy the work. And I guess I believe that anything worth doing is worth doing well.

Q. How did you manage those years when you were raising kids?

Well, I have a very helpful husband. I do.

I didn’t do as much traveling, and we never traveled at the same time. Hey, with two teenage boys at home? No.

And (managers) were flexible with the schedule at times. I think I’ve been good to them, but they’ve been good to me.

Q. Do you feel like that carried over to your management style and how you now run the place?

I’d like to think so. I think, when people offer you that flexibility, you want to work even harder. You appreciate that, so you’re willing to give another 10 percent.

Q. Did the people at Beaumont House always have that warm, close-knit feel about them?

I think so. Certainly for me. When I got there the journal office was housed in the family playroom, so there was a family feel to it. There just was.

ASBMB, when I first got here, was only two offices – the executive director and his assistant. The JBC was in the playroom and had one other office. It was very close knit. We celebrated birthdays and births. If someone went away – like we do here – they’d bring treats back, and we’d hear about the trip. There was camaraderie, friendship and a shared mission.

Q. What was your favorite room at Beaumont House?

The children’s playroom was a beautiful, beautiful room. I liked the light that came in and the fact that the windows were high so little kids couldn’t get out of them. It was open with the high ceilings and the light coming in.

I actually love some of the features that the house has, like the little closet with the drawers built in, near the Xerox machine. They are cedar drawers, and that’s where they’d store the linens back in the day. We put file folders and Xerox paper there, but I thought it was beautiful. And the dumbwaiter was kind of an interesting feature.

Q. What are some of your favorite memories?

I will always remember fondly the fajita parties we had.

The grounds. How could you not love the boxwoods that led out to the gazebo, where you could sit and think profound thoughts? The grounds there were spectacular, and when I first moved up from South Carolina, I had seen very little snow in my time. I remember going up to one of the windows in the children’s playroom and just being wowed by snow falling. It was spectacular. I also always loved the staircase with those beautiful windows when you walked in.

It’s a stunning building. And to think that people lived there at one time. It must have been beautiful.
When you think about it, they cooked downstairs in the basement. It’s an interesting concept, for me, to have a sunroom and gunroom.

Q. What were some of the challenges of having offices there?

It was not an easy place to work when computers came into our world. Running wires through plaster walls was not easy. There certainly were not enough outlets. It had its challenges, but we made it work.

Q. I suppose it was expensive to heat and cool?

Well, we never did get it quite heated or cooled exactly to everyone’s liking. There were always people who were cold in the winter and hot in the summer.

Q. Fewer complaints here?

Yeah, I guess so. I haven’t had as many. We have temperature control here. We don’t have drafty windows. We don’t have windows that blow open in a storm. Beaumont House was built in 1928. But there’s something very professional about this new place. It’s good.

Q. Well, now that I think of it, you’d never really worked in a professional office space.

I hadn’t. I hadn’t! I’d seen them. My husband has a professional office, but now I do, too, after all these years!

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