Linda Allen’s eyes were drawn to the framed print in her university office. The painting was of a large white house on the tip of Cape Cod. The house was where she had lived a half-century ago, in that summer before she came to Northeastern.
She could feel the tears rising as her memories led her back inside.
“I was thinking, ‘How could 50 years go so quickly?’” she says.
Allen’s tenure of 50 years at Northeastern will end on Feb. 26 when she retires as associate vice president and university registrar. She had planned to leave last June, but the COVID-19 pandemic interceded. New systems of remote and hybrid learning needed to be devised and installed throughout the global network. Instead of easing into the next phase of her life, Allen committed to the biggest challenge of her career.
“This was the toughest year,” says Allen, who has been working from home for the past year. “Absolutely.”
Not that there haven’t been other challenges. The registrar is essentially a service office, charged with organizing the vast schedules of classes for students and faculty. But Allen has been much more than a record keeper. As Northeastern grew from a local commuter school to a global research university—as quarters became semesters, analog systems were digitized, typewriters were replaced by computers, and phones became more than phones—it was Allen’s responsibility to anticipate and master the evolving technologies and networks so that she could guide Northeastern from one leap to the next.
Her personal growth ran parallel to the ascent of the university. She was the behind-the-scenes embodiment of a place that kept reaching higher.
“She’s just so wise and calm and unflappable,” says David Madigan, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs. During the pandemic, he says, “it has felt very much like Linda has been a rock that the university can rest upon. In the midst of truly crazy times, the steady hand of Linda has been there.
“Everything has a season, but this is a major loss to the university.”
Allen’s duties have expanded beyond the traditional reach of a university registrar. She has been contributing to the Commencement ceremonies since her first year at Northeastern—and running the operations in her role as Commencement chair since 1999—which means she remembers those frantic days when President Bill Clinton and Senator Ted Kennedy arrived late to give their speeches. If you happened to arrive early enough, you may remember seeing Allen in the comfortable pink Crocs she wore before the ceremonies began; when she changed into dress shoes, it was a getting-down-to-business sign to her colleagues and volunteers that showtime was on.
“Linda always has a can-do attitude of, ‘How can we better serve the students?’” says Mary Loeffelholz, former dean of the College of Professional Studies and professor of English, who has been at Northeastern for more than 30 years. “Her calmness, her willingness to listen when someone comes in with a crazy idea—these things have made her incredibly successful.”
The irony of someone so directed and driven as Allen is that she had no idea what to do with her life after she graduated from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst in 1970 with a degree in government. She had spent the following summer renting a room in that Cape Cod house—the one worthy of the John Dowd painting that would eventually hang on her office wall— and waitressing with a friend. Allen had been planning on going to law school. But then her friend took a job at the Northeastern registrar’s office and encouraged Allen to follow her there.
“I remember meeting her vividly as part of the hiring process,” says Katherine Pendergast, who led human resources while working at Northeastern for 47 years. “She’s been at the center of the institution, but it’s not a position where you’re hearing applause every day. It’s not an accolades job. Linda is one of those people who is really the heart and soul of the place, who really helped make Northeastern what it is today.”
Allen started as a receptionist in the registrar’s office on Jan. 25, 1971.
“We were driving into work together, my friend and I, and she said, ‘How’s it going?’” Allen says. “And I said, ‘If I last in this job a month, it’ll be a miracle.’ I said, ‘This is so boring.’”
By Allen’s third week, she had been promoted within the registrar’s office. The promotions would keep coming, decade after decade. She would keep growing while her roots grew deeper.
“One of Linda’s famous quotes is that ‘you’ve got to start with a plan.’ You can always change that plan, but you’ve got to start with one,” says David Thornton, the director of academic records who has worked with Allen for 42 years (plus another four as a co-op). “She doesn’t overcomplicate things. She wants to get to the solution. She’s incredibly collaborative with other parts of the university, and that’s important because everything we do affects everything else here.”
She met her husband, Michael, at Northeastern. He moved onto other employers—he was an information technology specialist—because it wouldn’t be healthy for them to be working at the same place. They had two kids, John and Torie.
“Michael passed in 2011,” Allen says. “He had been sick for a long time. It was a long journey for me and for our children.”
The main Commencement ceremony graduated from the old, overheated Boston Garden to its modern-day replacement, the air-conditioned TD Garden, where the arena floor was filled with students waving their national flags from around the world. Even as the annual ceremony has grown to fill the building, all of the students have continued to receive their diplomas in hand.
“There’s so much positive energy at those ceremonies, it reminds you why you’re in this business,” says Jeffery A. Born, who has been Northeastern’s chief marshal at Commencement for the past two decades. “There’s a lot of stress that day, I tell you—a lot of little adjustments, and people solving problems on the fly.”
Born, an associate dean for undergraduate programs and professor of finance at the D’Amore-McKim School of Business, volunteered to help with Commencement when he joined Northeastern in 1988. He remembers the first time he was asked to lead a line of graduates to receive their diplomas. As he approached the stage, he realized he was escorting the wrong section of students. He looked up to see Allen staring at him.
“She didn’t yell, she didn’t scream—she just motioned to stop my group and bring the other group around,” says Born, laughing. “I was so embarrassed. But that’s the kind of presence that she has: Let’s just solve the problem.”
Allen has worked for five university presidents. She remembers when Joseph E. Aoun, newly hired from the University of Southern California, arrived for his first Commencement ceremony. He had not yet heard the Northeastern alma mater.
“He said, ‘Can anybody sing it for me?’” says Allen. “There were six or seven of us around him. Dead silence. I said to myself, ‘Well, I guess I’m going to have to sing the alma mater.’”
How did it go?
“He got the gist of it,” says Allen.
In spite of emails, messaging apps, and video calls, Allen found ways to maintain and build upon her personal connections. She and Thornton would often have lunch at one of the tables outside Chicken Lou’s on Forsyth Street. People would stop by with an idea, or maybe she would see someone who could help her solve a problem. She seemed to know everybody.
“She inspired me every day,” says Thornton. “She’s made it easy for me to come to work, because I know I’m not going to be able to work harder than she is.”
Allen looks forward to the time she’ll be spending with her children as well as her two grandchildren, Jack and Vivian, each a year old. When pandemic restrictions loosen, she would like to travel.
“It’s time,” she says.
The COVID-19 lockdowns have ruined her farewell, in a way. Over these last several weeks she would have been scheduling celebratory lunches, and there would have been many of them.
“I tend not to let people go in my life that are important to me,” she says.
She takes with her real friendships. The relationships that transcend work. The people you can count on. For most of us, it is a small but important number; for Allen, the number is multiplied.
“My goodness, I don’t know if I can put a number on it,” she says. “Probably…50?”
Fifty is a large, rich number; and then there are so many hundreds more who know Allen, who have collaborated with her, who have benefited from a relationship with her.
“I look at the longevity of the staff in her organization, the commitment of her folks to the work they do—and to her,” says Cheryl Whitfield, who worked in human resources at Northeastern for 37 years. “She’s a great listener. She’s empathetic, she’s kind, and she is very humble.”
“Linda has been an incredible mentor and a trusted friend,” says Linda Bekerian, the director for academic ceremonies who has been working with Allen on Northeastern Commencements since 2000. “I never hesitate to give her a call, to bounce something off her; if I have a difficult email to write to someone, I’m going to run it past Linda. To lose that is going to be difficult.”
Recently, Allen returned to the office for one last time to pack up her things. There was her favorite paperweight—a railroad spike she had picked up 50 years ago near the tracks on Huntington Avenue. There was a dish from Morocco that someone had brought back for her. There were photos of her grandchildren, photos of her childrens’ weddings, photos of Allen with Commencement speakers Colin Powell (2012) and Mikhail Gorbachev (1998). There was a “Howdy” sign made of wire that she’d picked up on a business trip to Nashville.
And there was the framed print—House on a Bluff, as it was titled in 1997, more than a quarter-century after Linda Allen’s summer there. The artist saw something noble in its graying white coat, its long shadows flung across a yellowing lawn in the late afternoon. The memory will be hanging in Allen’s home soon enough.