In Memoriam

Regina Starolis, executive assistant to six Yale presidents

Starolis, an integral presence in Woodbridge Hall for more than four decades who was considered “the glue that held the university together,” died on June 22.
Regina Starolis
Regina Starolis (Photo: Mark Ostow/Yale Alumni Magazine)

Regina Starolis, the executive assistant to six Yale presidents, all of whom trusted and depended on her, died suddenly at her home in Middle Haddam, Connecticut on June 22. She was 80.

Beginning in 1973, when she was hired by Henry (Sam) Chauncey Jr., special assistant to then-president Kingman Brewster Jr., Starolis was the heart and soul of Woodbridge Hall.

Sitting right outside the president’s office, first on the top floor of Woodbridge Hall, and later in a corner office on the ground floor with a window onto Hewitt Quadrangle (Beinecke Plaza), Starolis settled herself at a desk strewn with papers, any one of which she could locate at a moment’s notice. There she acted as greeter, gatekeeper, scheduler, calendar czar, helpmeet, cheerleader, and friend.

She generally arrived in the parking lot at an unusually early morning hour, greeting other early workers along the way — the custodians, the police officers, the facilities managers, and other administrative assistants, with whom she would exchange information and friendly banter.

From then until well after dark — buoyed by an outstanding office staff that changed little over the years — she was at her command post, greeting, juggling phone calls, always available not simply to the president, but to faculty, administrators, students, trustees, and others around the university, all of whom she welcomed warmly.

She was a connector and a fixer, sending people by a lift of the phone to the place she knew they most needed to be (and saving the president’s time in the process). She had a special fondness for Yale undergraduates, in particular Yale Daily News reporters, whom she befriended.

When she started in the president’s office digital devices were few, and she resisted everything but email to the end. The presidential calendar logs, now deposited in Yale Manuscripts and Archives, contain the handwritten schedules of the six presidents she served — Kingman Brewster, Jr., Hanna Gray, A. Bartlett Giamatti, Benno Schmidt, Howard Lamar, and Richard Levin. The entries are in pencil, with engagements entered as much as two or three years ahead of time, but always available to be erased and replaced as the presidents’ complex appointments shifted.

Regina Starolis
Members of the Yale community recalled the comfort of passing by Regina Starolis's corner window in Woodbridge Hall and seeing her at her desk. (Photo courtesy of the Yale Daily News)

One thing that mattered very much to her reputation was that she was entirely apolitical. She was kind and warm to all. Over the years, the prominent people Starolis met were legion: four U.S. presidents,  governors, senators, famous actors, musicians, artists, and illustrious academics. But she made no distinctions in how she treated people, and her office itself, with its clutter, and its photos of members of the community, past and present, had an informal, welcoming, homey feel to it that put the ordinary Yale citizen as well as distinguished visitors at ease.

The years rolled by, but Starolis never changed. Sam Chauncey, who hired her 50 years ago, wrote, “She welcomed every person who came to her office, friend, or critic, with kindness and decency. Her contributions were only exceeded by the number of people who loved her.”

Richard Levin, president from 1993 to 2013, spoke about her in the same vein:

Regina’s magic was to make everyone feel valued,” he said. “This was natural for her, because she truly believed that everyone connected to Yale — students, faculty, staff, alumni, and friends — contributed to the success of the institution she loved and knew in intimate detail. She put everyone at ease and made them feel important.”

Current Yale President Peter Salovey knew her from the 1980s when, as the president of the Graduate and Professional Student Senate, he used to chat with her while waiting to meet with then-President Giamatti. “What I remember from those days,” Salovey said in an interview on her retirement, “and what I would say is characteristic of Regina for the entire time she worked at Yale, is that she made you feel your presence in Woodbridge Hall was desired and important, even if you were a graduate school student arriving unannounced.”

Alison Richard, provost of the university from 1994 to 2002 and later vice chancellor of Cambridge, called her “the glue that held the university together.” Judith Krauss, dean of Yale’s School of Nursing from 1985 to 1998 and Head of Silliman College from 2000 to 2015, said she was “all that was good and right about Yale.”

Several mentioned how comforting and reassuring it was to pass by her corner window and spot her sitting at her desk. It seemed like seeing a friend or family member in the turmoil of a crowded professional workday. Following her retirement, the late David Swensen, Yale’s longtime chief investment officer, mentioned nostalgically how much he missed seeing her as he passed the window. Alison Richard used to throw pebbles at the window to catch her attention. Victoria Nolan, the longtime deputy dean of the School of Drama, danced a jig at the window when she passed by, and she and Starolis spotted one another. Paul Needham ’11, who as an undergraduate was editor of the Yale Daily News, mentioned how, in his memory, he would always see her sitting there. “She made Yale human,” he said.

Two longtime Sterling professors, on hearing of her death, both mentioned their devotion to her. “An appointment to see Rick was an excuse to talk with Regina,” professors David Bromwich and Anthony Kronman agreed. “She always seemed to know the situation, without the slightest suggestion of gossip or insiderdom,” Bromwich added, “as well as how to sympathize without intruding.”

Regina Spallino Starolis was born in Queens on Dec. 13, 1942. Her father owned a furniture factory, and her mother was a loving wife and parent. Before coming to Yale she worked as a passenger representative for American Airlines, juggling complicated calls from VIP passengers booking and changing planes, and problem solving for the airlines — acquiring skills Sam Chauncey thought would be useful in the president’s office.

Always interested in museums, she applied to Yale thinking she might like to work for the Peabody Museum, as archaeology interested her. Sent by the tiny personnel office to be interviewed at the president’s office instead, she could not know that her interest in museum work would be fulfilled as the finalé to her career.

After retiring from the Office of the President in 2013, she became a key member of the Yale University Art Gallery’s education department, where, as Jock Reynolds, the Henry J. Heinz II director from 1998 to 2018, put it, “she joyfully enlivened its staff and delighted legions of student visitors.”

Starolis was the recipient of the 2001 Mory’s Cup for “distinguished service to Yale.” In 2013, she and then-New Haven Mayor John DeStefano’s’ executive assistant each received awards at the Seton Elm-Ivy Award celebration, which honors efforts to support the collaboration of Yale and its hometown. At her retirement President Levin delighted her by announcing a new Yale College scholarship fund in her honor.

A member of the board of directors of the Grove Street Cemetery, Starolis was also a commissioner on the Middle Haddam Historic District Commission, and a devoted volunteer at New Haven Reads.

Starolis’ husband, Algirdas, died in 1996. She is survived by her sister Sandra Tarowsky; her niece Dina Gerbasio; her nephews, Todd Gerbasio (Melina), and Ziggy and Paul Dicpinigaitis; and her adored great nieces Stephanie, Melissa, Jessica, and Megan Viskoc, and Brianna and Samantha Gerbasio. She was predeceased by her brother-in-law Neil Tarowsky.

The Spencer Funeral Home, located at 112 Main Street in East Hampton, Connecticut, is in charge of arrangements. A wake will be held there on Friday, June 30 from 5:00 to 8:00 p.m. The funeral will take place at 11 a.m. on Saturday, July 1 at Christ Episcopal Church, 66 Middle Haddam Road in Middle Haddam, Connecticut. Burial will follow at 2:30 p.m. on Saturday in the Grove Street Cemetery in New Haven. There will be a gathering to celebrate the life of Regina Starolis on Sept. 8 at 4:30 p.m. at 43 Hillhouse Ave. For information, please write presidents.house@yale.edu.

Donations in memory of Regina Starolis may be made to St Jude’s Research Hospital, 501 St. Jude Place, Memphis, TN, 38105 or to New Haven Reads, 45 Bristol Street, New Haven, CT, 06511.

Beloved Regina truly was, and will always remain so in our hearts,” said Jock Reynolds.  All of those at Yale, past and present, who received her help, support, and caring, would surely unite in agreement.

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