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Alumnus Helps Legions of Tourists Find Their Way

Reporter's Notebook

By Georgia N. Alexakis

When he graduated from Harvard 62 years ago, Howard F. Gillette '35 thought he was headed for bigger, faraway places.

Little did he know that he would one day work just across the street from campus in what may be the area's smallest building.

The Harvard Square Information Center--nestled inside the octagonally-shaped, faded wooden booth in front of the main entrance to the T--is not a resource that passing tourists or long-time Cambridge residents can afford to overlook.

Inside the tiny structure are friendly faces, like Gillette, who can provide you with more than just a 25-cent Cambridge street map.

Directions to obscure Cambridge landmarks, advice on the quickest way to Kirkland Avenue and references to the best hotels and restaurants in the area are only some of the tips one can obtain by visiting the booth.

And if you knock on the sliding window each Tuesday morning, chances are that Gillette will be there to greet you.

"I've worked here for the past 10 years, and the [Cambridge] Chamber of Commerce opened up this booth 11 years ago," said Gillette as he directed a tourist in search of a Harvard T-shirt to the Coop.

"I help people find places and help get them where they want to go," he says.

Gillette says he fields anywhere between 50 and 150 questions during one four-hour shift.

"I sometimes get asked where Harvard Square is," Gillette says with a laugh, adding that British tourists are usually most confused since the squares in London are actually shaped as squares, and are usually adorned with a statue. "But Harvard Square is not a square; it's not even a triangle," says Gillette. "It's a state of mind."

Despite the large number of questions Gillette answers in a day, he says he rarely gets questions from Harvard students.

"In fact, I'm more surprised when I do," says Gillette. "[Harvard students] have access to so many other resources--professors, other students, the University's information center--that they shouldn't have to ask me."

Gillette, a native of Lake Forest, Ill., who now lives in the Boston suburb of Chestnut Hill, says that as an undergraduate, he never imagined he would one day be the Square's center attraction.

"When I went to Harvard, I'm not sure I even knew where Harvard Square was," Gillette says, jokingly.

Instead, Gillette, who lived in Mower Hall and Eliot House, concentrated in romance languages and worked as the hockey team manager.

"In those days, the managers were more prestigious. It was more of a fun job than it is now," Gillette says, adding that he also played a little golf and "drank a lot too much."

After graduation, Gillette worked for Harvard in the alumni area for 23 years. The father of four, Gillette now serves as his class chair. In this role, he has organized his share of luncheons as well as his class's 50th reunion.

"I was looking for something to do after retirement," Gillette says of his volunteer job. "It's all about being nice to the people and giving them the kind of information they are looking for."

"You don't know what is going to come up, but you want to be nice to them," Gillette says. "You want them to think that the people of Cambridge are nice."

Most people ask Gillette what he calls fairly simple questions concerning things like bus schedules, directions within Cambridge and the best place to get a quality sandwich.

Equipped with at least 20 different kinds of maps and years of experience, Gillette says that he can usually answer whatever question he is asked.

"They ask a lot of directions because they think that we're tied in with the T," Gillette says. "Our goal is to get them where they want to go without getting them lost."

In an hour-long interview interrupted about every two minutes, Gillette directed passers-by to the best local French restaurant, pointed out Harvard to confused tourists, and even warned one man that the John F. Kennedy birthplace in Brookline was "not very impressive no matter how much you want to see it."

But every once in a while, Gillette gets a question that even he and his storehouse of Cambridge reference materials just can't answer.

"One time a man asked me for a map of San Francisco," says Gillette. "I don't know what he was thinking, but I told him that he could either go across the street and buy one at the Coop or he could go to San Francisco and get one there."

"I don't know what he did in the end," he says.

Gillette isn't alone in his efforts to help Cambridge tourists. The information center--open from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m., seven days a week--is staffed by a group of about 10 volunteers.

"I don't think you could find a more diverse group," says Gillette, referring to his fellow volunteers. "When we have occasion to get together, it always intrigues me that we are all doing the same thing. We all want to help people."

Gillette says he sees himself working in the Square for as long as he is needed.

"It's a service to the community. Sometimes you get someone who's really lost or who really needs your help," Gillette says. "You help them, and it makes you feel good. It's a better feeling than telling someone where the post office is."

"Volunteering here is something you can really put your arm around and at the same time get a kick out of what you're doing," Gillette says.

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