Dear Fearless

by Susannah Mowris, Finance Manager

I've been asked to speak about working with Danielle. It falls upon me to relay a more common aspect of her life at Reid Hall, the constant mix of the personal in the professional, the private within the public, and the human behind, and inextricably linked to, the position.

When I came to work at Reid Hall 15 years ago, it was principally as Danielle's assistant. I mention this to underline the intimate proximity I had the privilege to share with her for several years. My impressions were not formed in the lofty heights of academia, then, but in the trenches, accompanying Danielle through the daily tasks, watching, learning, and marveling at her agility, her ability to dance between cultures, institutions, and roles, and the competing agendas therein.

At some point early on I coined the nickname we would use until she retired. I called her "Fearless", as in "Our Fearless Leader", because it had quickly become apparent to me that Danielle was not easily daunted.

She was well-versed in the internal politics at Columbia, and it fascinated me to watch her divine people's intentions, much like a Kremlinologist during the cold war. She would slowly unravel aloud the hidden relationships, power structure, pet projects and possible trade-offs involved in any decision made on campus. I felt like a naïve child watching a master, wondering what it took to peel away from the surface the layers of complexity behind any decision.

She also taught me to read a balance sheet. She started doing the budget with me, and soon enough set me the task of uncovering its underpinnings, meaning she put me in direct contact with the administration in NY and established me as a credible interlocutor and not simply her assistant in Paris. She liked to nurture others and watch them grow.

It's not so long ago, but we worked in a universe that had not yet been completely transformed by electronic means. We wrote checks, presented for her signature in an enormous portfolio, and she verified as she signed each one; we sent letters on paper, letters that she would dictate to me, and when we had a serious request for Columbia, we used the fax (and sent the originals along after). Our preparation for her twice-yearly visits to New York to attend multiple meetings and reunions was a marvel of material organization, with dossiers of every topic and their color-coded contents laid out on her desk in chronological order of their use, checklist at hand, and documents were always paper-clipped, not stapled, as was her stated preference.

She could be mischievous, and she could be infuriating. My office was the antechamber to hers and when the door between us was open, we would banter back and forth, and, I've been told, it was not rare to hear peels of laughter emanating from our wing. She accepted good-natured teasing, especially when it came to the subject of technology—not her strong suit—and so I told her that I knew how to talk to machines.

When exasperated—with her computer, her software, her connection-- she would call out angrily, "I can't work like this!" which was my cue to step in, and if possible, untangle whichever technological problem was causing her angst. I will never forget her chastened expression when, after her long diatribe on the uselessness of a printer that wouldn't obey, I looked it over, bent down, and simply plugged it in.

She had a keen sense of hierarchy but also a strong sense of justice. Whenever I worked on a document with her, she insisted that my name go on it beside hers. When we spoke in French, she always addressed me as "vous". Upon her retirement, she stated rather matter-of-factly that the hierarchical relationship – and this, she always said in French, the lien de subordination -- had now dissolved, and that we should use "tu", underlining the friendship that had emerged over time between us.

My Dear Fearless, I thought there was still more time to learn from you, to exchange with you, to laugh with you. Thank you for all you did share, for all you opened to us while you were here. You have made a furious impact, professionally, personally, and humanly.