Most undergraduate residents of the Quad opt to eat lunch at one of the nine Houses close to Harvard Yard, but Joel R. Villaseñor ’95 and his friends would often trek back to Cabot House because they had someone to see: Mary A. Quinlan, a Harvard University Dining Services employee and a beloved Cabotian.
“It could be a bit of a schlep to go back to the Quad for lunch — and yet, a bunch of us did it, because it was worth the while because Mary was going to be there,” Villaseñor said. “She was like the living, breathing texture of home in there.”
Quinlan joined Cabot in 1989, after moving to the area with her husband and five children. Quinlan’s daughter, Molly Quinlan, said her mother quickly found a group of adoring students and colleagues at Cabot House, where she worked for nearly two decades.
“It was more than a job,” Molly Quinlan said.
“I think it was part of her identity,” she added. “Even after she retired, it was important to her that she made a contribution to Harvard and the people there.”
Quinlan was described by her daughter as “a wonderful, bright, funny woman,” who had a “razor sharp wit.” Molly said the meaningful connections her mother made with many Cabot residents over the years left a profound impact on both the students and her mom.
Quinlan died during her sleep on Dec. 24, her daughter said. She was 78.
Quinlan served primarily as the “checker” in Cabot’s dining hall, verifying Harvard ID cards and allowing students into the servery.
“The checker is a very important role because that’s what the students see first,” said Anabela A. Pappas, a Cabot and Pforzheimer House HUDS employee. “She was the best checker, because she knew exactly how to talk to the students, even faculty members.”
Quinlan always seemed to know the best approach to every student, said Villaseñor, a former Crimson Arts editor.
With copies of newspapers including the Boston Globe, The Harvard Crimson, and the New Yorker stacked up on her desk, Quinlan was happy to chat with students about the news or anything they were reading. Topics ranged from local politics and sports, Villaseñor said, to “really delicious, decades-old gossip.”
“She knew everyone and she had this courtly, perfectly calibrated sense of tact,” Villaseñor said. “She was never intrusive, and she always knew exactly what and how much everybody needed.”
“She was the very heart of Cabot,” he said.
Quinlan called all of her students “buttercup” upon greeting them. When Villaseñor graduated, she gifted him a salt marsh pottery paperweight with a buttercup flower embedded into it. Villaseñor said he has kept the paperweight on his desk at every job he’s had since graduation.
When students were unable to travel back to their families for Thanksgiving, Quinlan invited them for a meal in her own home, Molly Quinlan recalled.
“She was a mother figure to anybody who needed it,” she said.
Quinlan’s motherly tendencies also extended to her colleagues and fellow members of the UNITE HERE Local 26 union, which represents HUDS workers.
“She was always trying to be a mother — mother goose — to the co-workers,” Pappas said. “And it was a lot of things that she helped them with, even just outside of work — it was like finding them a place to live.”
Quinlan contributed to a “family” atmosphere among staff in the three Quad houses, known as the “country club” by staff at other houses for their tight-knit working environments, Pappas said.
Quinlan’s generosity toward her co-workers became part of her job description when she became shop steward for the union. In the role, Quinlan was responsible for communicating with management on behalf of workers, according to Pappas.
When union members had difficulties asking management for days off or to enroll in English courses, Quinlan would “be their voice,” Pappas added.
Michael Kramer, the executive vice president of UNITE HERE Local 26, wrote in a statement that the union’s members “mourn the loss of our union sister, Mary Quinlan.”
“During her many years at Harvard, Mary became a trusted friend of many of those who worked alongside her,” Kramer added. “Her union family celebrates her life and we know that she will be remembered fondly by the many co-workers and students whose lives she touched.”
Quinlan’s union advocacy also played an integral role in strengthening contractual protections against sexual harassment and discrimination based on gender, sexual orientation, and religion, according to longtime Local 26 union organizer Edward B. Childs.
Quinlan’s “tenacious” character and “strategist” mindset made her an ideal advocate for union members, Childs said.
“She was also extremely compassionate,” he added. “She understood an injury to anybody, whether it was a dishwasher, a server, or someone, was an injury to all.”
As shop steward, Quinlan restructured the dining hall system by creating an internal union leadership system in every dining hall.
“It was a concept that strengthened us to be able to be the most powerful union on campus,” Childs said.
Even following her retirement in 2006, Quinlan learned how to stay connected with union members via computer, said Childs.
“It was a huge inspiration to me just being near Mary, seeing how hard she would fight,” Childs added.
When HUDS workers went on strike in 2016 over compensation, health care, and layoffs, Quinlan continued to support her former co-workers.
“She was so proud of me when we went on strike,” Pappas said of the 2016 strike, during which she was arrested. “She goes, ‘I don’t care, I would’ve done the same thing. I’d be there right next to you.’”
Quinlan forged lasting friendships with students and co-workers alike.
“Mom makes a friend and they stayed her friends for life,” Molly Quinlan said. “Nobody wanted to ever let her go.”
One point of connection Quinlan often found with others was her wide range of intellectual interests, from global history to the films of Martin Scorcese. She was an avid reader — even after losing her vision, she would often go through an audiobook in one day, according to her daughter.
“There are people who are better educated than my mother, but I don't think I could find somebody more intelligent than my mom was,” Molly Quinlan said.
Along with her books, Quinlan brought a “sharp sense of humor and a marvelous, slightly wicked laugh” to her post in the Cabot dining hall, according to Villaseñor.
Beyond cultural and intellectual conversations, Quinlan was an empathetic listener that many turned to for advice.
“She had a great gift of just being there, and you could feel that she empathized with you,” Molly Quinlan said.
Although working at Harvard was initially intended to be a short-term job for Quinlan, the sense of community she found motivated her to stay in Cabot House until retirement.
“Working at Harvard gave her pride and community and an intellectual outlet that she didn't have before,” Molly Quinlan said. “She truly made a second home there, and she was loved and respected.”
—Staff writer Natalie K Bandura can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.