CW: So, we are Anna Bonnell-Freiden and Clem Wood, and we have the pleasure of interviewing Don Pumphrey here at the Dumbarton Oaks Guest House on September 4th, 2008.
ABF: So, can you start off by telling us how you ended up with a job at Dumbarton Oaks in 1975?
DP: I had left the Air Force and been in college for about a year, pretty much without direction actually. And a friend of my mother’s told her that Dumbarton Oaks was looking to hire someone. And although I was a native Washingtonian I had no idea what Dumbarton Oaks was. With that lead, I called down here and spoke to a gentleman that was – I think they called him superintendent of the buildings at the time – and he told me to come in for an interview.
ABF: And so what were your first impressions when you got here?
DP: When I walked through the door, it was a completely different configuration from what it is now. The security officer’s desk, as you walked through the front door, was to the left. It was in a corner. And you looked at a curved wall that ran around the mosaic on the floor. There were these two alabaster lights at that corner. And I didn’t know if I was in an apartment building or a funeral home. [laughter] That’s what I thought. And this voice called to me from the corner, and I turned and looked, and I saw the guy standing there. And literally I came down here not knowing what this place did; didn’t know of its existence.
ABF: So, who told you then? What did you think of it?
DP: The gentleman I interviewed with, Michael Dziedzic, was the gentlemen – since passed away about a year ago – and it was much, much different from the way we do things now. I talked to him for maybe half an hour, and he said, “OK, I’ll see you tomorrow.” And I said, “Wait a minute.” I was not ready to be hired that quickly. And I think we got along well because we both had an Air Force background. He had retired from the Air Force, and I had just been out not very long. I had come from the security police division of the Air Force, and a component of the job that I was hired for had security work in it – didn’t tell me much about the rest of the work. I kind of danced around it, and I’m not sure why, but he really wouldn’t specify what I was going to do if I wasn’t going into security. But it worked out. I took the job. I took another day, I remember that. When he said, “I’ll see you tomorrow,” I thought, “Hold on. Give me 24 hours to digest this.” That was February 27, 1975, I think I started working here.
CW: What was security like then? Did they still have the dogs?
DP: No. They had a system that had been installed in the early sixties from ADT Company. The building was zoned off into different sections. During the day there was only one security officer on duty. And in the evenings there were two. If you had an alarm – and the officer stayed in the building; they didn’t go out. They stayed in the Main House. They hired a service to patrol the grounds, and that was just in the summer. Matter of fact, in the wintertime, they dropped that person. But the security of the Main House, how it was zoned off, was if an alarm tripped in a certain zone, you had an idea of an area to go to. Nothing was specific. You may have to go check ten offices to find out what caused that alarm to go off. And it was already getting antiquated by then. There were a lot of failures in it. I thought its time had just about run out. They would just bypass parts of it when they couldn’t figure out how to fix something. They would just chuck a window out to keep the nuisance alarms down.
CW: Was that improved soon after you got there?
DP: It really didn’t get improved until the eighties when they did the first major upgrade of the security system. It had reached the point where ADT didn’t want to work on it because they had to scavenge their parts from other buildings. The materials weren’t even available to them any longer. So, we knew sooner or later the whole place was going to have to be renovated security-wise. The whole approach to security had changed by the time renovations came about. You don’t alarm individual windows like that any longer. You alarm the room.
ABF: What were your responsibilities when you first started?
DP: I was on the maintenance staff, so I had parts of the building to just clean and to care after. It varied throughout the years. I kept being moved around. And then I was either working security in the galleries in the afternoon or filling in on the evening shifts. I think what helped me a great deal here was I was one of the few people that paid a great deal of attention to the security. I had come from that background. Every time something would come up, a question of how to do something, I would always think back to what we did in the military, because my last two years I was stationed at Andrews with a group called the National Emergency Airborne Command Post. It’s a flying command center for the President, and it’s a high security area. If an issue came up of, “How do you want to do this?” I would think, “Well, what did we do back there?” And it would always apply. It was very helpful.
ABF: Who did you get to know well in these first years that you had working as a guard, with maintenance?
DP: Well, look, all the guys in the day crew that I knew. A good friend of mine was Luis Guerrero, who passed away mid-eighties. Silvio – you’ve talked to Silvio. Tony Pereira – I worked together with him until he retired. So, actually for about ten years, I was the new guy. For the first ten years of working here, I was the new guy. Nobody came behind me. Or a few people came and would leave right away – didn’t want to stay or didn’t particularly like the work and left. A really good friend of mine was Alex De Boeck, who was the assistant superintendent, I believe his title was at the time. And he worked – this buildings department, we did a little bit of everything then. One of the places that I ended up working with Alex was in the mailroom. And that’s where we used to actually package the books and everything right from Dumbarton Oaks and send them out. So, I would help Alex in the mailroom. I was working weekends then. It was a busier time on the weekends than during the week, visitor-wise. There was much more contact with the public.
ABF: So, you also worked on Sundays?
DP: Yes, did that for about fifteen years. I was off in the middle of the week. I wanted to tell you something about Alex. It’s completely slipped my mind now.
CW: Was he an artist?
DP: He was. Some of his stuff’s still around here.
CW: Did you know Astor Moore?
DP: Yes. We weren’t close, but I knew him.
CW: Did you spend a lot of time in the collection when you were on security on the weekends?
DP: Yeah, we were so busy in those days with visitors that I remember they used to station one of the security officers – would be in the Pre-Columbian wing at the entrance to get everybody to move to the right. Because instead of just entering the gallery and being able to move any direction you wanted to go, we had to keep everybody moving in one pattern, because it was just so crowded.
DP: Yeah. I never knew how anybody enjoyed themselves in that situation. You couldn’t see anything. But there were just huge crowds back then.
CW: So this was in the mid- to late-seventies?
DP: Yes. Early eighties. When they first did the renovations of the third floor and the rest of the house, but mainly the third floor – I think they started that in ’79 – and we ended up being closed to the public for a year and a half or two years. The galleries were closed. It just didn’t seem like it came back the way it was before. Gardens have always done well.
ABF: Did you know a lot of the garden staff also?
DP: Not real well. Don Smith, who we talked about earlier, I knew him.
ABF: Were you friends?
DP: Yeah. In fact, Don wanted me to take the house. I don’t remember who told me that, but I remember someone saying to me when Don was asked about it, he said, “Yeah, I’d want him to move in there.”
ABF: Can you tell us about the circumstances under which you became assistant superintendent of the building and museum in ‘83?
DP: Unfortunately the gentlemen I spoke of earlier, Mr. Dziedzic, had a series of health problems. He had a heart attack and came back for a while, and I think he had another one before he finally retired. While he was out, I took over different things. I was asked to and did. And again I was working with Alex very closely all that time. So, Alex and I kind of did a lot of the duties that Mike used to take care of. I can’t remember the dates when his successor came along. Ron Williams – before he came in the assistant director at that time was who I got the word from – Judy Siggins was the Assistant Director at the time. They wanted to do something to acknowledge what I had done, that I had stepped up during that period and helped them out. And again, the security end of it came into play. So, I believe that Alex was given some title like Assistant Superintendent for Services and I received Assistant Superintendent for Operations. It was something like that. I think that’s what it was: I think it was just an acknowledgement that I had stepped up and done more than what I was actually being compensated for. And this was a way to reward me for it.
CW: Did you work then with the museum people in terms of installing security devices in the collection at all?
DP: No. No, when the renovations came – I can’t think of the name of the company. I think it was Henry Adams. And I think they in turn hired a security consultant – came in and they really didn’t seem to ask for a lot of input from us. That’s my impression now. As much as they came in and said, “This is what you’re going to do. This is what we need to do, and this is how we’re going to do it.” Not, “What do you think we should do?”
ABF: Did you have contact with the director at this time, when you were promoted?
DP: Yes, that was Robert Thomson. He was quiet. He was a quiet man. So, I don’t remember – he didn’t entertain a lot. I don’t remember a lot of our contacts. It was Robert that promoted me to Manager of Buildings, and again we ended up in a situation where a lot of changes were going on. The Systems Director was leaving. Robert was going to leave fairly soon. Mr. Williams – who had followed Mr. Dziedzic as superintendent – Mr. Williams ended up with a ton of health problems related to his back. He was out quite a bit. And again, the same thing started happening. I started taking on more responsibilities. It had just reached a point where we knew with all of these people leaving that something had to be done. They were gracious enough. When I say they, I mean Mr. Robert Thomson and Judy Siggins. When it was obvious that Mr. Williams wasn’t going to return, they started bringing in people. In fact, I think they hired headhunters to find someone to be superintendent. Alex and I would take these people around the property and around the buildings. Then they’d call us in and say, “What do you think of them?” And if Alex or I said, “I can’t work with this guy,” they said, “That’s it, end of story. Thanks.” Dumbarton Oaks ended up, over the course of I don’t know how many months those searches went on, offering the job twice, and both times they turned it down. I think one person just went back to where he worked and said, “Look what they’re going to offer me,” and ended up staying. And another fellow who was over at Catholic University came in, and I remember sitting down in the office with him looking at Alex and I and said, “This is my third visit, and I’ve seen what Alex does. Don, I’ve seen what you do. So, what the hell am I going to do?” [Laughs.] I said, “Well, I don’t really know. I mean, the administration is asking for you to do this, and we’ve tried to come up with some things.” And he said, “I wasn’t even looking for a job. I’m kind of happy where I am. But when someone called me I thought, ‘Well I’ll come look at it and see.’ But I just don’t see it.” So, he didn’t take it. The only thing I had a problem with – I wasn’t afraid to take the job at that point. By then I’d been here quite a while, and I didn’t know anything about engineering. I told the director that. I said, “I’m completely at the mercy of whatever the engineer would tell me.” This guy’s name was Jim Arter, the chief engineer, and he and I got along fabulously. Robert Thomson actually took it back a step to where it had been before Mr. Williams was here. He divided those two departments so that I would become manager of buildings and Jim would run engineering. With that being settled, that’s when I was made Manager of Buildings.
ABF: So, that was in ’88?
DP: Yeah, late ’88, I think.
ABF: So, at that point, did you feel at home at Dumbarton Oaks?
DP: Did I what?
ABF: Did you feel at home at Dumbarton Oaks by that time?
DP: Oh yeah. Yeah.
ABF: And you moved in –
DP: That wasn’t until ’92. So, I’d been manager of the buildings about three years when they asked me to move on. Don retired. I’m not sure what the thinking was behind it. I don’t know if it was a security issue versus putting the Superintendent of Gardens in there. I don’t know if that had anything to do with it or not, but the Superintendent of Gardens position was changing. The Chief Engineer, Mr. Arter, had just left, and by then I’m working for Angeliki Laiou, who was the director and had been for two or three years at that point. So, I’m the known entity at that point. So, I think that’s one of the reasons I was asked to move in.
ABF: So, did you get to know Angeliki Laiou?
DP: Yeah. We worked – I don’t know how many years she was here, nine or something like that.
CW: And it was under her that La Quercia, the new Fellows apartment, was acquired, right?
DP: Yes, sir.
CW: And so were you involved in setting that up, as the new residence for the Fellows?
DP: In staging it, and moving furniture there and things like that, yeah. It was pretty chaotic because we used to have – I think by the time we left up Wisconsin Avenue here, 2702 Wisconsin. We were notorious for that building.
DP: The resident manager there just hated us. I don’t know why but she just hated us. And I think we had somewhere between eleven and thirtee apartments there, spread out over eight floors of the building. But she just despised us. And I think they were glad to see us go, and we were glad to leave.
ABF: That seems odd. You can imagine that the scholars living there were pretty tame.
DP: I don’t remember any – party-wise I think the biggest disaster we had up there was one Fellow, their apartment went up in flames. And the fire department, in order to get to the apartment, had to go through her apartment. If you haven’t seen the building, there is no way – the apartment that caught on fire was in the back of the building, and her apartment is in the front. It’s just a narrow alley, so there’s no way to get fire equipment down to the back of the building, so they took a ladder up, busted through her windows, and went through her apartment then down the hallway to the apartment that was on fire. So, that just cemented our relationships with her. [Laughs.] I forgot what we did, but we did something to make amends. I think she got a table broken or something other happened when the fire department was in there, so Astor Moore repaired all that stuff for her. We took it back up and sent her flowers. I forget all the stuff they did. It was a great idea, whoever had it – I guess Angeliki – to put all the Fellows in one building like that. It made them closer, because, like I said, in that place they were spread out over the entire apartment building.
ABF: What were the other big projects that were undertaken during that time that you were involved in?
DP: Gosh, the excavation and renovation of the courtyard gallery and the offices downstairs. I was here when the renovation of this building was done, but there were two renovations of this building. All those big projects like that – even the Director’s house across the street, when that came on – usually there was a project manager brought in to run those, so I was always peripheral, personnel-wise, of those issues. I’d be called in to ask about certain questions or needs. That was about it. I really didn’t have a hands-on, choose a contractor, or have to oversee them.
ABF: Did you also get to know some of the scholars who were here often?
ABF: Like Alexander Kazhdan?
DP: Yeah. We were not real friendly with the Russians when he first showed up here. And I remember all these boxes and boxes of books arriving prior to his arrival. Again, I was working with Alex at that time pretty closely in the mailroom, and we were told to put the books away, and I think we took a closet or somewhere in the building. Don’t talk about it. So, he kind of arrived here in these mysterious circumstances at the time. I remember him and his wife telling us their first impressions of getting here and walking in the Safeway and just being overwhelmed by seeing all these goods for sale. I helped him and his wife move into what’s now the security cottage up at the corner. 3201, they were in. And I was up helping them one day – I was assembling a bed for them – and Mrs. Kazhdan says to me that she was impressed that Americans were so good with their hands. And then she said, “Well, that’s cause we have nothing to put together.” [Laughs.] I was one of the first people to get to the pool. He unfortunately died there. It was not a pleasant evening, but it was something he always enjoyed. He always did laps in the swimming pool.
ABF: Were there any other scholars that stuck in your mind?
DP: Oh, I wouldn’t know where to begin. Some of them I’ve known or known of them since ’75, they’re still coming back here. Some I’m closer to than others. Some that I look forward to seeing, sit down and have lunch with or a cup of coffee. The current director of Pre-Columbian studies, Joanne Pillsbury, I’ve known for years, I think I knew her when she was a Junior Fellow here. I’ve known a lot of people go from Junior Fellows, came back as Senior Fellows fifteen years later. But Joanne stands out. Elizabeth Boone was director over there before. I’m very good friends with the Fellow – I don’t know if he’s in the field anymore – Eric McGeer – who was at Harvard for a while and was at McGill in Montreal for a while.
ABF: Did you overlap at all with Betty Benson?
DP: Yes. Betty was here when I started. She was the Director of Pre-Columbian Studies. And I learned through the other Fellows that she actually put that together, pretty much everything you saw over there at that time – just a wonderful person.
CW: Before you came here, we’ve heard that there were some ghost stories that Mario has in particular. Do you know anything about those?
DP: From late ’88 till ’08, I’m manager of buildings. I think I’ve always had one security officer who would swear that Mrs. Bliss was around somewhere. [Laughs.] Never got a confirmed sighting – that I could confirm, put it that way – but it seemed like I always had somebody saying, “Boy, strange things happen around here at night.” I said, “Yeah, I guess so.” – especially when it was just two security officers by themselves in that big house at night. I did that before promotions, and you’re walking around a building that size at night, and a piece of machinery kicks on, and you almost jump out of your skin because you didn’t expect it. I never saw anything. [Laughs.]
ABF: What do they say they saw?
DP: They claimed they’ve seen her up in the Main House. And it’s always her. I’ve never heard anybody say anything about Mr. Bliss. I’m not sure why it works that way. And Alex – I don’t know how many people I’ve ever told this story to – Alex told me this story, that when Mrs. Bliss passed away, they had a house at 28th and Q Street. And Alex’s job – this was before I came here, and I forgot who else he said he was with – they would go down to the house to check on the house. And Alex claimed that they walked into the house one day and they went up to the second floor and he heard something. He looked around and saw the keys to a closet there. And there was a key in the door, and keys hanging from it, and the keys that were hanging from it were swinging back and forth, back and forth. He actually had to go over and grab the keys to stop. Now that’s not on the property here, but that’s the most descriptive story I ever heard. There’s someone on the staff right now who thinks they see things. They even mentioned it about the library. I don’t see, how can it be the library? It’s a new building. It didn’t exist before that. But there’s always been someone. But firsthand knowledge – I don’t have a story for you.
CW: So, your duties didn’t change too much if the Director was different?
DP: No. They really didn’t – found out that our facilities department, a lot of the jobs I had over the years came about as once you did something, it was yours. You really didn’t quite understand it, but once you did something, it became part of your job. I know what I was thinking about earlier, when I was talking about Alex. Not only did we do the mailroom at that time, we also ran the gift shop. That became another component of what we did. Sometimes I’d spend my time in the afternoons sitting in the gift shop.
CW: Behind the cash register?
DP: Yeah. And they had a coatroom. They actually had an old desk that they’d roll over and put in front of one of the doors. They put an old cash register that you had to crank to get the numbers up on it. That was the gift shop. They had so few items that at the end of the week, Alex would sit down and look through the prices. And by looking through the prices he’d be able to tell you what books sold. It was just a blank receipt with numbers on it. It didn’t give you anything. So, I was glad in the last few years that I was here that the institution had grown to the size it had, that people were starting to look at it like, “Why is this person doing what they’re doing.” We lost the gift shop some time ago, and that was good. Mailroom duties got assigned to certain people, so we finally acknowledged that that takes a lot of time up, and you can’t be doing all these different things. I thought the institution had reached a point – I’m drifting a little here, but bear with me – Dumbarton Oaks almost every year would send me to the national conference on cultural protection that the Smithsonian puts on. We brought down Michele Trifiro, who was head of Harvard museum security one year, and she was to go with me. She was going to give an assessment of the security here and attend the conference with me. And I remember we were walking around once and her surprise when I received a call that a roofer was here. And I said, “I’ve got to go. I’ve got to go up on whatever roof we were going to.” And she said, “What’s that got to do with you?” And I said, “Well, I do roofs, too.” So, that was to me the first recognition almost of, if you’re doing security component, you should be doing security component instead of running around and taking care of the mail room part of the time and seeing that the gift shop was staffed and seeing if the Xerox machines are working. Now you’re going up on a roof. I’m drifting here, but that incident has always stood out in my mind like it was a takeoff point of, I’ve got somebody who recognizes that security needs more attention than it’s getting.
ABF: When was that?
DP: Oh, has to be early ‘90s. I’d say ’90 or ’91, somewhere in there. I think it was before Angeliki got here.
ABF: So, who was responsible for re-assigning some of these tasks that before had fallen on your shoulders?
DP: That’s taken place recently, in the next couple years. Happened after Professor Keenan got here, and then really took off when Jan got here. As I was preparing to leave, Mike Steen told me that one of the things he wanted to sit down and do is sit down and figure out who does what and why do they do it. And that had been brought up five or six years earlier, but really nothing had happened with it.
ABF: And do you think that was because you had just been here so long –?
DP: I think so.
ABF: – and had just done all these different things that you could just sort of –?
DP: I think so. I guess that once you did them, you kind of had them. I don’t want to sound pompous or anything, but very often when some of our scholars that know me, Joanne or any of the people we talked about earlier, would introduce me to somebody new who came, they would say, “This is Don Pumphrey. He – well, he does everything.” They didn’t know how to categorize what I was doing.
ABF: Did it ever start to feel like too much, so that you wanted to get people hired to unload some of this?
ABF: So, who was of particular help to you?
DP: Particular help was the staff that’s on now. Mario Garcia and Embry Davis. Especially when Mr. Davis came on, I really wanted to try to push him along because he was a retired D.C. police officer. Where he didn’t have a museum security background, he certainly had a police background to know how to run. And the security component was getting bigger and bigger. They were hiring more and more and more officers.
ABF: People like Eric you hired?
DP: Eric, I think, was the first person I hired. He actually came on the house staff and then went over to security.
ABF: So, you said that you started to – as these tasks began to be reassigned in the last several years.
ABF: So, what were the circumstances under which that finally really happened?
DP: I think a lot of it started happening when Professor Keenan created a position of Director of Facilities. Then the position started to get broken down some. But I don’t think it really took off until recently.
ABF: Was it something about the way Keenan wanted to organize the institution?
DP: I think so.
ABF: So, how was that different from what you had seen before?
DP: I had always reported to the Assistant Director, up to that point. The Assistant Director’s position was kind of all-encompassing in that she worked with the Fellows – she ran the fellowship program – and she kind of was the de facto H.R. director. We didn’t have an H.R. director for years and years.
ABF: Until Maria?
DP: Until Maria came in. And again I don’t know the details of it but obviously Professor Keenan had a different idea of how the organization should function in that way. When Gay announced her retirement, instead of an Assistant Director they hired the Facilities Director. And then that got broken down a little more in that he had five or six departments reporting to him, and then during his time here – we’re talking about Mike Getter now who was the Facilities Director then – two of those departments were taken away and moved into the museum branch. Those things started to change four or five years ago.
CW: Were there ever any security incidents when you were here?
DP: No. [Laughs.] We had more incidents of visitors being hurt, is what comes to my mind, of somebody falling or walking into something. I don’t – I can’t think of, during the time from ’88 to ’08, any thefts or attempted break-ins or anything like that. We’d have the occasional trespasser that we’d have to get off the property and the biggest headache I used to have security-wise was that swimming pool. People would come in regularly, and you’d hear people talking about it at parties. “Oh yeah, I know Dumbarton Oaks. When I was in college I used to go swimming there in the middle of the night.” So what I did – at that point we still had the contract service in the gardens. I told the company we had at that point, it was just one guy, “I don’t want you to patrol at night. I want you to sit at the swimming pool. ‘Cause anybody that’s coming over the walls is coming for the swimming pool. And you sit there and you just wait for them. When they get there, take them out.” We would ask for identification and we’d tell them if they came back we were going to call the police on them next time and things like that. It took a while, but slowly it just faded away. I don’t know if word got out that there’s no sense in doing it because the guy’s going to be there waiting for you when you get there, but it just slowly died away, and I never hear much about it anymore.
CW: We were just talking about the biggest security threats were people coming into the gardens to swim in the pool.
DP: Yeah. Everybody would tell me that.
ABF: School kids?
DP: College kids. College kids. Yeah. We had a Georgetown student one night who came up from the bars in Georgetown and was banging on the North Vista door trying to get in. He thought he was at his dorm. [laugher].
DP: And the guard inside was yelling at him to get away from the door, and police response was almost nil. And it took almost two hours for the police to get there. I guess they didn’t think it was much of an issue.
ABF: A drunk nineteen-year-old kid.
DP: Yeah, eventually he passed out, was sleeping on the steps. They were out looking for him, and he comes over the wall where the cops were. They said, “Come here. We want to talk to you.” And the guys told me he had damaged a screen, and the guy called me at the office about two days later, very apologetic, very embarrassed obviously, and he said, “I’ll do anything you want.” I said, “I’m just curious.” I said, “Where the hell did you think you were?” He said, “Sir, last thing I remember is leaving Chadwick’s in Georgetown.” And he said, “I thought I was at the dorm.” I said, “Well, you took a right when you should have took a left.” He brought a check that afternoon for whatever amount of money we said it was for the screen. I just left him thinking about that. I didn’t tell him we weren’t going to prosecute. I had no intention of doing that. But I didn’t let him know that, just let it die. So, security-wise that was the biggest thing, that swimming pool. I was not a big fan of the swimming pool.
ABF: So, no big heists of a famous pre-Columbian object?
DP: No. As I said, from ’88 to ’08 I was Facilities Manager. I don’t recall an attempt, even anything I thought was an attempt. An occasional trespasser. Most people just wanted to come in the gardens at night. For whatever reason, they wanted to come in the gardens at night. I always thought we were fortunate, kind of out of the way. I subscribed to all these museum alert things and crime reports from around the country, and I always worried because so much of it takes place in Europe, that I thought someday somebody’s going to catch on and start pulling this stuff in the U.S. – especially with how brazen they are in European countries about it. I mean, if you walk in the door with weapons, nobody’s going to stop you. I’m glad to see security upgrades being done before this last renovation. I think it made a great deal of difference. I know they pay a lot more attention to how they attach the objects to the wall or to cases. And I’m not sure there’s anything in that building you can just grab and run out the door with.
ABF: What about who can enter the building, and the whole key card –
DP: I was so glad to see that happen. I know there were a lot of people – a lot of the older scholars – thought this was terrible. I think in many ways, they thought of D.O. as a country club. And everybody knew everybody. That was my explanation to one of the Fellows who was quite upset about the key cards. I said – I’d been there thirty years at that point – I said, “I can certainly remember the time when I could walk around the buildings and the grounds and everybody I saw I knew. But it’s reached a point I don’t know these people. I don’t know if they’re supposed to be here or they’re not supposed to be here. So, I was an advocate for the key card entry system and wearing ID cards. Again, people didn’t like that. They just didn’t want to wear ID cards. They said, “We’re not big enough.” I’d say, “Yeah, we are. If you don’t know everybody, you’re big enough.”
ABF: How big was the staff when you first got here? Because now there are like 88 staff members, or something like that.
DP: Yeah, it was tiny. Probably in the thirties, because –
ABF: Almost tripled.
DP: Yeah. There was no publications department when I started. I think there were two people in finance. No H.R. department. We have a lot of joint fellowships now that we didn’t have back then. They’re not staff, but still. And the facilities staff has just – like I said they used to have one or two security guards working at any one time, and now some shifts have five people on them. So, it’s quite a bit more people than when I started.
ABF: Do you think the character of the institution has changed a lot as a result?
DP: Yeah. I think there is a campus mentality. It used to be, Dumbarton Oaks was thought of as the Main House. That’s Dumbarton Oaks. I think during Keenan’s administration and the expansion and the additional buildings, it’s become more of a campus atmosphere. And you have to think of the institution like that now, because everything doesn’t happen just in that Main House any longer.
CW: It does feel somewhat spread out.
ABF: Were you in favor of the expansion?
DP: Yeah. We were falling all over each other in that house. There was nowhere to go. The hallways were crowded. I was delighted from the security angle when I found out how many cameras were being brought in. I put a camera at the pool, by the way. [Laughs.] That was another thing that can take care of a lot of those problems, when you can see the pool. I think what I heard from one of the surveys they did, we were told that the architects said they’d seen a building that was one hundred thirty or one hundred forty percent of capacity, but this was the first place they been to that they’d looked at – it was nearly two hundred percent of capacity. It was almost double what was in there that should be in there comfortably.
ABF: People also seem to miss the close-knit atmosphere that was provided by that environment, which was what you were probably used to also.
DP: Yeah. I do have to say that when I cam here, there was what a lot of the staff that worked in maintenance and facilities thought of – again I’m going back to the ‘70s – would be referred to as an upstairs-downstairs mentality. There were different levels of strata here, who you talked to and who you interacted with. And I think those barriers came down over the years. I think of Dumbarton Oaks as an elite institution, but I definitely think it’s more friendly across all lines than it was back in the ‘70s.
ABF: Did it feel very rigid and uptight and old-fashioned?
DP: When I started, yes. And the first change that I noticed in that was when Giles Constable became Director. I would credit him with knocking a lot of that down.
ABF: What in particular do you remember?
DP: [Laughs.] What jumps to mind, if I can – well there’s no reason I should edit this story, so I’m going to tell you the story. I’d not been here very long and I was sitting at the front desk, that security desk that I described to you. And he came in and he went to the left and he sat there. The door back then opened in, not out, as fire codes now require. But it opened in and when it opened in it had a throw bolt on the inside. We locked the door. And it was a weekend. There was a gentleman named Jose Garcia who later transferred over into accounting and was in accounting for I don’t know how many years – quite a bit. But at the time he was still working in security. He was a Cuban refugee who had slowly worked his way back up the ladder to accounting practices that he used to do in Cuba. Anyway, he was on the desk. I relieved him for lunch or something like that. And I’m sitting at the desk just – it’s a Saturday or Sunday – deathly quiet in that building. I was probably reading the paper or something. And the Director came out. I guess he was going for lunch or whatever he was doing. And he got to the door, and he turned the handle and he looked at me and said, “Could you show me how to open this?” And I thought, “What the hell? He doesn’t know how to open a door?” So I got up and walked around and opened the door and let him out. And when Jose came back, I told him, I said, “This bizarre thing happened. The director came and tried to open the door and couldn’t.” He just started laughing. He says, “Don, he expects you to get up and open the door for him.” A little light bulb went on and I said, “Oh, I get it.” I hadn’t been exposed to something like that before. In the military you salute or you acknowledge somebody but you don’t go open the door for them or something like that. And the reason that stands out so much in my mind is that when Giles Constable came, by then I’d been conditioned. And he came out one day, and I went to open the door, and he said, “I don’t want you to do that. Don’t do that. I can let myself in and out.” And I thought, “Changes are coming.” [laughter]
DP: And I think that was the beginning of it. It was met with resistance. There was an old guard here that did not want to give up those privileges. It’s a pretty distant memory now.
ABF: What were some of the other things that began to change under Constable that you really felt in terms of the social atmosphere of the place?
DP: Giles really opened us up to the public. I think that when I came in, D.O. was not public-friendly in that we were not trying to get people to come in and see the place. It was an academic institution first and foremost, and that was just a sideline and I think Giles really opened us up to the public. He gave more interviews to the press. We saw ourselves in the paper a lot more. And attendance started going up. And then we reached a point like I described earlier where we had to push people through Pre-Columbian in a certain direction because it just got too crowded. Slowly during his tenure, a lot of that old guard left, and he replaced them with people who do not have the – again what I’d refer to as upstairs-downstairs attitude of staff.
ABF: Who were some of those people?
DP: That were here when I came in?
ABF: Yeah, that ended up leaving under Constable.
DP: They ended up leaving on the fact that they retired. I mean, I don’t think it was any that were pushed out, but they saw the difference and I don’t know what their reasons were. I remember Eleanor Ostermeier was one. Lucy Baglia was the accounting person.
ABF: What was Eleanor’s job?
DP: I don’t know what her title was, but it was like the assistant director. Actually I shouldn’t say Lucy Baglia. She’s not who I wanted to make reference to. There was someone before her that I have to make reference to because Tony Pereira would always tell me the story of going into finance and speaking to this woman about paperwork. He needed to get a house. And her response to him was, “What do you need a house for?” I thought, “Okay, that fits into that category I was looking at.” But it wasn’t Lucy Baglia. Sorry, I really can’t think of any other names. But Giles – and I’ve seen it swing different ways. I thought Angeliki was more in that vein too, in that she liked the public here. It’s not as forward about it as Giles was, but she enjoyed the public here. And I think we went a little bit backward with Professor Keenan. I think Professor Keenan’s mission was to get this library and renovations taken care of. It was not real – if they show up, people show up. If they don’t, they don’t. That’s it. And my impression in the brief period I had to work with Jan is he was going to try to bring the public back in again. That’s one aspect I’ve seen switch with directors.
ABF: What about Thomson?
DP: What’s so hard to remember about Robert – and I’ve always thanked him for giving me the opportunity – he gave me to be Manager of Buildings. He was the only director during the time I was here that – I think Robert stayed five years and I always had the impression he was ready to pack up and leave after about three, like he really didn’t like this job as much as some of the other directors had. He wanted to do other things. I think it was more of a burden to him than he thought it would be – that’s my impression. Giles stayed nine or ten years, and Angeliki did. Keenan was here seven or so. But Robert was the only one who did one term and left at the end of that five-year appointment.
CW: Yeah, that’s true.
ABF: So, Constable came very shortly after you got here, right?
DP: Yeah. I think ’81. No, that’s been before that.
DP: ’77. So, yeah.
ABF: So, you were here right in what many, many people have talked about as one of the key transitional periods for Dumbarton Oaks.
DP: Well, with Tyler leaving and Constable coming. Yeah I think it is because Tyler also is the godson of the Blisses. So, there’s your connection, and then the connection’s gone. Slowly started to see some of the old Bliss people fade away too from the concerts. That was another aspect of what facilities – I worked all the concerts. And I’d hear from the guys that who had been here for many years before I was here, “Oh yeah, she’s a friend of Mrs. Bliss;” “This was a friend of the Blisses.” They start fading away at about the same time.
ABF: And they also were pretty old. So, did it feel like there was just a younger crowd here with Constable then?
DP: Yes. Like a shot of new blood.
CW: Were you working security at the concerts?
DP: I don’t know what you’d call it. I guess we were security, ushers. We did a little bit of everything. We had so many people. We used to work five or six people at concerts. When I left here in May, maybe two of us would work – two or three. But we used to do everything. There were guys that used to open car doors for people. There was an actual coatroom where you could check your coats. It was a big event.
ABF: How did people get invited to them?
DP: Back in that day, I understand that for a long time when I first came here there was a waiting list to get tickets to the D.O. concerts. And it was the same people over and over again that were friends with the Blisses. Now I actually think they’re out there soliciting people to come to the concerts, the attendance has fallen off so badly. And it’s still quite an older group of people. I just left here and Ned Keenan’s been gone maybe a year now and Ned would come over to me at the concerts. I’d be just looking at the crowd, seeing who’s sitting where and what seats were empty and where to move people. And Ned would – even then, just a year or two years ago – Ned would walk up to me and whisper in my ear, “Makes you feel young, doesn’t it?” [Laughs] “Yeah, when I look at this group. Yeah!”
ABF: I guess to sum up, are there any other stories you’d like to tell us about or any other things you have changed or not changed about the place that you would want put down?
DP: I don’t know. I’ll probably be thinking about this the rest of the day. Thinking, “Yeah, I should have told them that story.” Or something like that will cross my mind. I really feel personally like – I used to have a rabbit’s foot in my back pocket. This is just unbelievable. I came to work here and thought I’d be here six months. And thirty-three years later I left. Really, I didn’t see much future here. We used to close – when I first came to work here – we would close July 1st to the public – the gardens, the museum, everything. July 1st to the day after Labor Day. And I worked, I think it was Fridays through Tuesdays then and I was off Wednesday and Thursday. But when that change came in July you got the weekends off. And it was a Giles move. It was a Giles Constable move to keep us open year around and to start charging in the gardens, which set some people on edge. And I’m drifting here, but it was Giles’s idea to stay open year around. And I remember going to Mr. Dziedzic who hired me – I’d been here a few years – and I said, “Listen, I’m leaving.” And he’s upset, and he said, “Why? What’s going on? Why are you leaving?” And I said, “Well if I’m going to be working year around, all these weekends like this, I’m not going to work every weekend. He said, “No, no. We’re going to work something out. We’ll work something out. Don’t be hasty.” He said, “Don, I think you have the potential to run this department someday.” And I just laughed at him. I said, “Yeah, like that’s going to happen.” And I always remember that. I didn’t think it would happen. Over and over again I’ve thought, “Boy, just a rabbit’s foot in your pocket. You took a job, thought you were going to be at for six months. You ended up working at, to me, one of the greatest institutions I’ve ever been around. And for God’s sakes you got to live here for fifteen years. You got to live in a house that – people would give their eye teeth to live back here in this place. It’s like you’re living in the country, yet you’re half a block from Wisconsin Avenue – ten minutes, you’re in Georgetown, you’re in the thick of things. I’ve just felt very fortunate. That’s about it.
ABF and CW: Thank you.