Meet Phoebe Smith
Phoebe Smith came to work at Mount Saint Vincent University on October 28, 1974, for a three-month job, or so she thought at the time. Instead she has stayed “forever.” Phoebe has now been working as an Administrative Assistant at MSVU for 48 years, just about one third of the university’s 150-years of existence. Today, she is Administrative Assistant for the Departments of Modern Languages, Cultural Studies, and Women’s Studies. We asked her a few questions during a recent coffee chat.
Phoebe, why did you come to the Mount?
“I have the connection to the Mount because of my dad. When he was 18 – this Acadian man from Lake Doucet, Digby County, who did not speak a word of English –he came to Halifax in May 1919, just a little bit over a year after the Halifax Explosion. He was hired by The Sisters of Charity to work on the farm [on the site of MSVU]. At the time, they had everything: a farm including a barn, livestock and fields. My dad was very happy here. He learned his English working here. Every day, he used to ride his bicycle from the community of Rockingham, where the family lived, to the Mount. I remember coming with my neighbours to the field, which was in place of the Seton building, and picking lilacs from lilac trees growing all along the Bedford Highway.”
When did you start working for the Mount?
“I came here after working for 10 years as secretary for the Halifax Shipyards. I started working there after my graduation from Miss Murphy’s Business College, but after 10 years, I knew everything about the ships and what was going to and from the ships, and I decided to do something different. I called the Mount on a Thursday and they told me to come on Friday for an interview. This is how I was hired for what I thought would be a temporary job, but it ended up being a full-time position for many years. When I arrived, the University was still basically run by the Sisters of Charity, only women were permitted to take classes or be in residence. The majority of faculty were Sisters. The Seton building was a “new” building having been just opened in 1971 and it was the main building where classes were held. The Library was located inside the Evaristus Building. There were residences and Francophone students even had their own French residence (“Marillac”), a house behind the current Sheila A. Brown Centre for Applied Research (formally the Catholic Church of Rockingham).”
When you came to the Mount, there were no computers. How did you work?
“I worked for ‘Secretarial Services,’ which assisted departments without an officially assigned secretary (this included most departments!). All typing was done with a type-writer, of course, and later, I learned to use a huge Micom word-processor, installed in Seton. I took training, and we used to come to this machine with our floppy disk and work on it, and later, another person would come with their own floppy disk. To learn this ‘new technology’ was challenging at the time, but interesting! Later, at the beginning of the 80s, we started to learn to work on computers.”
For how many Departments did you work? For instance, in the Department of Modern Languages (MODL), with how many Chairs did you work?
“Eventually I was assigned to Modern Languages in the mid-1990s, along with other, smaller departments. I worked with many people, at least seven different MODL Chairs, who sometimes served two or more mandates. Currently, Modern Languages shares my services with the Cultural Studies and Women’s Studies Programs. I saw many changes over the years. The work conditions changed, I was there when the Staff Union was formed, and later, witnessed its merger with NSGEU.”
Is it true that your daughter is an MSVU alumna?
“Yes, my daughter has two degrees from the Mount. A Bachelor of Arts, Child and Youth Studies, and a Bachelor of Education. She took French and Spanish courses at the Mount. She also completed her Master of Education at StFX, and she works as a primary teacher at Basinview Drive Community School in Bedford.” [Editor’s note: Even Phoebe’s grandson has ties to the Mount as Phoebe would often bring him to daycare on campus before going to work.]
What it is that keeps you going? What is most special about the Mount to you?
“People! People keep me going! I love the students, the faculty, the staff. I love the atmosphere; I love the community. Once you become part of the Mount community, you stay. I call them ‘my extended family.’ And I learned so much here even without taking courses. You never stop learning.”
The Department of Modern Languages, Cultural Studies Program and Women’s Studies Program are so grateful for Phoebe’s work and cherish every day of work with her, as she is loving, supportive, efficient, and, most of all, an inspiring person. She marks occasions by sneaking goodies into our offices! She keeps acquiring new skills and adapting to our changing world, and each time we see her, we have a good laugh about something.
Without Phoebe Smith, Cultural Studies would never have taken root and flourished to the degree it has. She nourished this little remnant of Fine Arts with her confidence and conviction that the Mount flourished through small, distinctive sites as well as larger, more conventional units. Her encouragement, astute assessment, and knowledge of MSVU overall have carried more than one unit through rough patches. She has set an example of dedication and resilience that is truly unmatched.