Half-century Veterans Chronicle Changes

Working at the Coop:

Harvard Square isn't what it used to be. Once, college students had manners. Harvard men wore ties and blazers; Radcliffe women had to wear gloves in public--or face demerits.

Stores have come and gone, trolleys have been replaced by subway cars and Sunday strollers have given way to punk rockers. In the midst of these monumental changes, one landmark has remained the same--the Coop, formally known as The Harvard Cooperative Society.

For more than 50 years, four women have watched the area grow and the students change. Alice Knox '19, Estelle Sutherland, Helen Cummings and Bess Makris have worked at the Coop for the past half-century.

Hard Knox

Alice Knox, a Radcliffe graduate who still leads the college's annual graduation procession, recently retired after working 57 years for the Coop--over half of its 105 year existence. According to Coop President James A. Argeros, she was the Coop's longest standing employee. "We honor her at every possible occasion," he says.

Argeros is not the only one who remembers Knox fondly. Langdell Law Professor Emeritus Erwin N. Griswold wrote Knox a letter of congratulations after an article about her appeared in Harvard Magazine several years ago. That letter has become one of her prized possessions, Knox says.

It was not age or boredom that brought on Knox's retirement, Argeros explains. When her son-in-law retired and moved the family to New Hampshire, "Cambridge would have been too long a commute."

Although Knox no longer works at the Coop, she says she tries to get down to Cambridge to do her Christmas shopping. "The Coop is my favorite store and always will be," the 90-year-old woman says.

Knox worked at the Coop through many changes, and she remembers when the textbook department was not self-service and all the books were set up in packing boxes. She cites the current self-service in the department as "a wonderful way to handle the large increase in the number of students and titles."

But "the thrill of personally waiting on some famous person is gone," Knox says. She remembers waiting on Franklin Roosevelt as an experience "much more exciting than to have just seen him come in, packed up his books, and watched him leave."

The most important change the Coop has undergone, according to Knox, is the addition of a women's store. "The women's department was a great step forward," she says, adding it is "almost as important as the right to vote for women."

Knox says one change particularly pleased her: "Years ago, old people were not as welcome in retail stores as they are now." Without this change, Knox might not have been able to stay at the Coop as long as she did.

Knox says she is enjoying her retirement, but she misses the Coop. "I feel as if I am really past history, but it sure is a pleasant feeling to be remembered," she says.

Estelle Cooped Up

Estelle Sutherland has been at the Coop almost as long as Knox. She spent most of 1984 in retirement. But, when the Coop opened its Medical Center branch in 1985, Sutherland says she was asked to return to work--for "a few days." "I ended up staying," she says, "and I have already been there for two years." Sutherland says she does not plan to retire in the near future.

Sutherland's most memorable experiences are from the days when the Coop cashed personal checks like a bank, and she was head cashier. She says she met many famous students over the years, including the Kennedys and the sons of other famous politicians.

On one occasion, Sutherland recalls that a Massachusetts' governor's son "sent his piano tuner to me with a check written out on an ordinary piece of paper." Although "now you couldn't do that" the Coop cashier says she cashed it anyway and "gave him the money."

Of her more than 10,000 working days at the Coop, one in particular stands out in Sutherland's memory, the day the Coop was held up for $50,000. Brinks Company had just delivered the large sum of money needed for the store's check cashing service. Suddenly, employees and customers thought a fire had broken out. But, Sutherland explains, it was really the robbers throwing smoke bombs throughout the store.

Sutherland and the other employees were unaware that a robbery was taking place. When "One of the robbers just picked up the bag [which was at Sutherland's feet] and ran out," Sutherland thought it was a Harvard prank.

The robbers were eventually caught and the money returned. She says she loves the Coop, and is happy working there. "Fifty years is a long time," she says. "If I didn't like it, I wouldn't have stayed."

Sutherland notes that working conditions at the Coop have improved over the years. "The Coop has always been busy, but when I first started, we didn't have a coffee break or a day off," she says, noting that she had only one afternoon off a week. "Now, we have better hours, and there are better employee policies."

Sutherland feels that Harvard Square has been transformed into "a different world." She says students seem to buy more now, "and they seem more interested in art and in having things."

Keep 'Em Cummings

A relative newcomer, Helen Cummings celebrated her fiftieth anniversary at the Coop this fall. Cummings was originally hired for two weeks at the Business School Coop at a time when "you were lucky to get work anywhere." Two weeks have become fifty years and, Cummings says, "Time has slipped away."

The stationary department employee says she enjoys working with Harvard students at the Harvard Square Coop, as "youth is wonderful." But, she dislikes the change in their outlook over the years. "Back in '37, [a Harvard student] was a man with a look to the future. Today, the same young man knows he is the future," Cummings says.

Not only have the people changed, but their clothes have as well. "Individual expression is the mode now," Cummings says, nothing that clothing styles have evolved from grey flannels, white shirts, red ties, and blazers, to "you name it."

She has seen Harvard Square become a testing ground for fashion; "If you don't see it in Harvard Square, you won't see it." She believes Harvard Square has other merits: "You stand on the street corner in Harvard Square, and you are educated if you want it or not."

Even merchandise for sale at the Coop has changed. "Once students came in to buy an apple, and I sent them to the fruit stand. Today, I send them to the computer department," she says. However, not everything changes. According to Cummings,. "where is the restroom?" is still the leading question that employees have to answer.

Cummings says that the Square now changes more with the Christmas season than in the past. "It used to be that only New Englanders and people who lived in-state would go home," she says. "Now people go home to anywhere in the world."

Cummings recalls several interesting people she has met while on the job. One of her "greatest pleasures" was selling a typewriter to Helen Keller. "She came in with Annie Sullivan, and she was the most gracious lady in the world," Cummings says. "She typed me a little note on the typewriter as if she could see every word, and I still have it."

All the interesting people have not been customers, Cummings says. For Cummings, the Coop has been "more of a family affair. We sort of adopted each other. Alice Knox's granddaughter is my godchild."

"The Coop is my home away from home," Cummings says, adding she has no plans to retire because "there are too many grand people down there."

At her 50th anniversary party, the Mayor of Cambridge presented Cummings with the key to the city. Always ready to seize an opportunity, she asked him if the key gave her the right to "park anywhere in Cambridge." Apparently, however, it takes more than 50 years at the Coop before such a privilege is granted.

The Bess of Times

Just weeks after Cummings' anniversary gala, Bess Makris celebrated her 50th year with the Coop. Although Makris began at the Harvard Coop, she later transferred to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Coop, then known as the Technology Store. She remains there today.

Makris says she remembers working at the Coop's laundry service--which has since been abolished--filling out the cards for incoming students. "We picked up and delivered their laundry every week," she says.

Like Cummings, Makris notes changes in the student body. In the past undergraduates were "very immature." In those days, she explains, "they had never left home, and they needed guidance. Now they are more mature, and having left home several times during high school, they aren't completely lost in college."

Makris says she is proud to be a member of the MIT community. "I have had so much experience there," she says. "I am part of the MIT family."

Irreplaceable Employees

Argeros says he feels like a newcomer, having been with the Coop for only 10 years. He says the four longtime employees are, "irreplaceable...They represent a generation of service-oriented people who work and dedicate themselves to serving the institution."

And when oldtimers leave, "it is a double loss," Argeros says. "We lose both the people and the experience they have relating with hundreds and thousands of Harvard faculty and administrators who have come to depend on them."

In the meantime, Argeros notes, "Through thick and thin we can always count on them, and we have only the highest respect and regard for them."

In this day and age, career loyalty, such as that shown by Knox, Sutherland, Cummings and Makris, is rarely found among young people. With the present high-turnover rate of most retail store employees, it is unlikely that fifty years from now, women such as these four will have worked at a department store for such a breadth of time. In the meantime, Sutherland, Cummings and Makris have no plans for retirement.