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A conversation with Monique Comeau

Posted by Department of Economics on April 2, 2024 in News

Monique Comeau recently retired as the Economics Department administrator after having spent her entire career at Dalhousie. She started working in the Department in 1981 and, as administrator, served under 7 different Chairs. Chair Tess Cyrus interviewed Monique for this issue of EconMatters; excerpts of their conversation are below. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Tess Cyrus (TC): I will start by asking where did you grow up and what is your educational and work background?

Monique Comeau (MC): I grew up in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, and following high school, I took an administrative secretarial course through the Dartmouth Career College, a branch of Maritime Business College.

TC: How did you find the job at Dalhousie?

MC: An HR employee at Dalhousie had a connection to the business college, so every spring they would ask the college to pick one or two of their students to go for interviews, and they picked me.

TC: How many people were in your class in the business program?

MC: 30 to 35, I would say.

TC: So, you were at the very top of your class!

MC: I did well but not the top - good enough for a referral. I went to HR in the Henry Hicks Building for my skills testing. I got a call a month or so later for an interview for the Economics Department. And the rest is history.

TC: Tell me what the department was like in 1981.

MC: Two staff members worked in your office at 6220 University. The administrator’s office was located on the main floor of 6206 University.

TC: And it was only the three of you? So that hasn’t changed; we still have three staff members.

MC: Yes, the three of us. I would say the complement of faculty is the same to what you have now, with fewer part-time academics. And a comparable grad program – the grad program was quite robust.

TC: The three buildings weren't connected back then, or were they? So, to get to the administrator’s office, you’d have to go outside?

MC: That’s right, we went outside; the houses were linked later. Staff equipment included typewriters, a photocopier, and a gestetner machine (a duplicating machine used for large “print” jobs). Mary, my co-worker, had a self-correcting typewriter so I needed to be careful and try to not make too many typos with mine because fixing them was a tedious process.This helped my typing skills – as did the reams of numeric tables I typed for Christian Marfels over the years. I didn’t mind because I loved to type, and he happily kept me busy. Equations were done by changing font balls back and forth (from text to symbol) - another tedious process. Eventually a computer terminal was set up in the main office, followed soon by personal computers.

TC: So, what would you do on the terminal as opposed to the typewriter?

MC: Typing, which cut back on typos. We had to go to the Killam Library to pick up our printouts.

TC: Back in the 1980s, did the secretaries get computers before the faculty?

MC: We staff may have had them first, but they soon started popping up throughout the department.

TC: So, you secretaries had to do all the typing for the faculty?

MC: Yes, we did most of their typing. External messages were sent via a telex machine located in the Killam Library basement.

TC: I don’t know what that is.

MC: A telex machine was the forerunner for faxing, emailing, or texting.

TC: Couldn’t you call on the phone to convey a message?

MC: Long distance was costly so we would send important messages via telex. Funding confirmation for graduate students to their consular offices, for example. Snail mail was too slow for important correspondence. We “shared” our photocopier with two other departments. Budgets were tight.

TC: It’s interesting how much has stayed the same. The buildings are all the same, there are still three staff members. The number of faculty is about the same, the same number of grad students. But then the jobs of the secretaries have really changed because they're not spending their days typing on behalf of the faculty - but their days are very full, nonetheless. You would think things like computers would make everything easier at the office, but it also means there are just more new tasks that must be done, so everything still takes the same amount of time.

MC: It sure does. In the 80s, we didn’t have timetable requests for classroom issues, DalOnline, Navigator for calendar edits, or FAMIS for work orders. Students would line up to register for their classes and pay their tuition. Long lines. But they managed and we managed. Students learned, graduated, and got jobs, and the department kept on ticking.

TC: So how did you end up as the department administrator?

MC: Mary left Economics for Medicine. I interviewed and got the vacated position. Jura went on an extended leave sometime later, so I subbed in for her. The administrator position was eventually posted, I interviewed and was the successful candidate. I started the position mid-way through a fiscal year and recall worrying what would happen if the budget didn’t balance. Would the Chair have to go to the Dean and say that we needed more money? It didn’t (and still doesn’t) work that way and I worried for nothing!

TC: Your advice to Jodi and me has been it'll be fine, it'll be fine.

MC: Yes, because it always is fine, it always works out.

TC: So, what did you enjoy the most and the least about being the department administrator?

MC: What I enjoyed the most - the people. I really did. And what I liked the least – the maintenance of the houses. Issues ranged from it’s too cold, it’s too hot, there’s a flood, there’s a radiator leaking, there’s a mouse in the basement, and so on and so forth! These three houses certainly keep staff busy!

TC: What are you most proud of from your time at Dalhousie?

MC: My relationships that I had with all the chairs - I got along well with them as well as the faculty and staff - we never had any serious issues. I also had good relationships elsewhere on campus. So, my relationships and navigating them, I would say that I'm most proud of.

TC: What are the biggest changes you saw over the years in either in Dalhousie in general, or in the Economics Department in particular?

MC: I would say it would be the new tools for staff to use to make their jobs “easier.”  If you just look at the job descriptions of the staff positions, there are so many programs that they need to know - those weren't around in the 80s! And the work done to the houses themselves – they are in much better condition than 40+ years ago.

TC: What is one thing that faculty or students could do to make the job easier for the staff?

MC: Submit items in a timely fashion! Staff always handle these “emergencies” with grace and diplomacy.

TC: It's true, you did. OK, can we list the chairs that you worked under?

MC: Bob Comeau, Erwin Klein, Barry Lesser, Lars Osberg, Kuan Xu, Talan İşcan, and yourself, Tess Cyrus. And there were acting chairs too. I won’t name all in case I forget someone.

TC: OK. Can you give me one word for each of those? Bob Comeau, give me one word for Bob as chair.

MC: Kind.

TC: That’s very nice! All right, Erwin Klein, give me a word.

MC: Funny. He had a good sense of humour. He would keep us laughing.

TC: OK, Barry Lesser.

MC: Dedicated. So dedicated.

TC: Oh, heck yeah. I was going to say energetic.

MC: That too... Hard-working, dedicated. So devoted.

TC: OK, Lars Osberg.

MC: One word to describe Lars? Intelligent, but that’s an obvious one because we all know he is. I would say creative - he always has a research project on the go. Lars would drop in every morning and say.... anything for me to sign? When Erwin was Chair, I was so new in the position, and then Barry was so knowledgeable, and his term as Chair was long, so I relied on him. Then Lars became Chair, and he relied on me.

TC: Kuan Xu.

MC: Oh, Kuan – hard-working. He only wanted what was best for his students and for the department. He was serious about his teaching and research along with his role as Chair during his term.

TC: All right, Talan İşcan.

MC: Oh, he is a person of integrity. He is a by-the-book kind of guy, one of those people you would never want to disappoint but at the same time brings out the best in you, so you don’t disappoint. We had an exceptionally good rapport!

The thing is, I could have easily stayed working in Economics for the next 10 years. It's just that there's a time to leave.

TC: I was devastated when you said you're going to retire just as I became Chair!

MC: I was truly bummed about not getting to spend more time with you in your role as Chair. Although it’s normal to have reservations, I now know I was ready because although I miss you all, I’m not worrying about how things are going because the Department is in exceptionally capable hands and so I’ve closed that chapter.

TC: Do you have goals for retirement? What do you intend to do with the rest of your years?

MC: My goals aren’t lofty. I want to travel. I want to learn to sew (and I have started), to pick up my knitting and crocheting again. I joined a gym class. I want to enjoy spending quality time with my family and friends and not having to get up at 5:30 am for my morning walks anymore! It's a full life.

TC: Is there anything that I have neglected to ask that you wanted to talk about?

MC: I think you’ve covered everything, Tess. If I could add anything it would just be to say that Economics was my home away from home and it was an honour and privilege to be employed there. I will never forget the Department or its people - faculty, staff, and students. Economics will always hold a special place in my heart. Thank you, Tess.

TC: Thank you, Monique.


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