The Lord of Lisser

From birth, Jim Graham’s entire life has been inextricably tied to Mills history. He recounts more than 70 years of memories.

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Born to a dance professor, he started pulling the curtain at age 10. Now, after nearly 50 years of working at Mills, Jim Graham reflects on his life at the College.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that Jim Graham tells the best stories about Mills. After all, he’s had a frontrow seat to campus happenings nearly his entire life.

The son of the renowned dancer Eleanor Lauer, MA ’40, who was instrumental in building the College’s dance department, Graham has had a bingo card of Mills experiences: growing up on campus, attending the Children’s School, working backstage at dance and music performances and as a summer camp counselor, auditing graduate-level classes, and being one of the longestserving employees in Mills history. This fall, Graham marks the 50th anniversary of his official start at Mills and a career that has taken him from backstage technician to director of audiovisual services and back to the theater again.

Above, a young Jim Graham picks up a package from Mr. Taylor at the Mills Post Office, circa 1955.

Of course, his story goes back further than that—to November 1950, to be exact. We sat down with Graham this summer for nearly two hours to hear more about that story, and to collect others about the Mills of yore.

Mills Quarterly: Were you born while your mother was on the faculty at Mills?

Jim Graham: No. She received the first master’s degree in dance at Mills in 1940, and immediately joined the faculty from 1940-47. And then she married my father (the late Robert Graham), and they moved to Chicago. My father was a stage and lighting designer, and he designed the stage for a big Progressive Party rally in Wrigley Field in 1948, which was a perfectly ordinary thing to do then. But by 1950 and the rise of McCarthyism, that must have made you a communist. So, my father was blacklisted, and he couldn’t get any work in Chicago.

My mother’s replacement in the dance department here was leaving, so my mother asked for her job back! So, I arrived in utero from Chicago in the summer of 1950—I was born in November—and then my mother started teaching in the fall of ’51. A professor of home economics—when Mills had home economics—was my godmother.

When it came time for me to start school, there was the Mills nursery school. We were living in San Francisco then, so we moved to what is now the western half of Ross House. When they converted it, the house had been gutted on the inside but what had been my bedroom was still there. They dedicated it in 1993 and a student was sitting in that room, studying at her desk. I told her that it had been my bedroom when I was a small child, and her jaw dropped!

We lived on campus until 1955 when I graduated from the nursery school. My parents wanted me to go to Burbank Elementary School, so they bought a house five blocks from Mills, and I’m still living in it.

When I was growing up, I would be with classmates or teachers or whatnot, and I’d say that my mother worked, and the response was always “Oh, you poor thing.” As though she’s supposed to be home baking cookies! I thought, “This is ridiculous. My mother does important things, and I don’t care if she’s baking.” I was a feminist without even knowing it.

So, while I went to elementary school, I was still around at Mills. When my father had to work late, I would come along to a rehearsal for a dance concert or for a performance, though I had no desire to be a dancer. The College used to run Saturday morning classes for children, and there were classes in art, music, and dance. I can say that I studied with Robert Arneson when I was eight years old! However, while I was imbued with the arts from the cradle, I was always more interested in the technical side.

I was also often the page turner for Doris Dennison, the music professor in the Dance Department. I couldn’t read music, but she would go, “Now! Now! Now!” When I was backstage, I just watched the lighting people, and that got me interested. I’ve been doing theater lighting ever since.

Was that in Lisser?

It was, in old Lisser. The first time I worked on a concert—I pulled the curtain in Lisser for a dance performance—I couldn’t have been more than 10. Back in the ’50s, television was in its infancy, so a student dance concert could practically fill Lisser, which had 600 seats at that point. By the time I was 12 or 13, I could also run the lights in the concert hall, and there was nobody else to do it. So, while I was in junior high and high school, I ran lights for the music department— though I didn’t get paid!

Jim Graham with a lighting board in 1968.

When I went away to college, I didn’t do much with theater. I majored in history and thought I’d be a high school teacher, but my father always said, “Don’t plan too much.” So, I came to [work at] Mills for a couple of years while I figured out where I was going to graduate school. My first year, I was part-time, and I earned about $4,000. It was 1973, but $4,000 wasn’t much even then! I was [working in] the dance department’s new theater in Haas Pavilion, but I couldn’t report to my department head because it was my mother. So, I reported directly to the provost, Mary Woods Bennett, the lowest ranking person to do so.

When I was finishing college, Haas was being built, and that was the new home for the dance department, including the department theater. However, Haas was also the gymnasium. The athletic program was relatively small then, but they had to move out for the dance department to move in [for performances].

We got very good at installing the stage—we’d come in on a Friday night, and we’d work through Saturday, get it set, rehearse Sunday through Wednesday, perform Thursday through Saturday night, then we’d pull it all out. By the next Sunday morning, you’d never know we’d been there, but it was a huge amount of work. When Haas was built, it had these seating sections on all four sides, so you could have all these different combinations: modified proscenium, thrust or arena (boxing ring) style. And it took us a while to figure out the best one, and how big our audiences were going to be.

Dance was in Haas from 1971 until around 2000. When the drama department went away in the early 2000s, dance moved back over to Lisser, and both dance and athletic people were ecstatic— it was the happiest divorce in history. Except for the renovation in 2017–18, dance has been there ever since.

How did your role at Mills evolve over the years?

Well, when Mary Metz became president in 1980, the buzzword in higher education was “strategic planning.” At that point, the provost was Charles Larsen: professor of history, wonderful man, great sense of humor. As we were doing all this strategic planning, I asked him if anybody was doing anything about audiovisual. And he said, “No, of course not.” The audiovisual department was one guy with a few projectors in the Cowell basement. So, I wrote up some ideas about how to organize an audiovisual department, plus the desperate need for better equipment—faculty members were bringing in their own audiovisual equipment because the College’s resources were so poor.

I turned in my proposal in the fall, and when I came back after the holidays, I ran into Charles at the Faculty-Staff Club. We were standing at the bar, and in his most conspiratorial voice, he said, “Make an appointment to see me, and don’t tell anybody.” That was Charles—he loved intrigue. Apparently, what I’d written up had rather impressed Mary Metz. So, they decided to form a real audiovisual department, which would include audiovisual services; the language lab, which was Stern 104; and my part of the dance department, theater production— and put me in charge of all of them.

We shortly thereafter got a new provost, Steve Weiner, who was very gung ho on technology in education. I remember when he told us we were getting $80,000 from a grant. That was the first time I’d gotten any money in five figures; at that point, we were able to really establish a department. When I took over audio-visual, we had one television set, one camera, and one reel-to-reel video recorder they said was portable (but weighed 42 pounds).

Basically, my time has involved the introduction of computers and computer projection in the classroom. I brought the College into the analog world of video, and we started putting big screens and televisions in classrooms. When the video projector came along, we were really able to go to town. I think there are no classrooms now without projectors and screens, connections for computers, and halfway-decent sound systems. Of course, it’s all gone digital, so the types of equipment we need are fewer. And it worked out incredibly well, because that was not only the point when I wanted to do less, but it was time for me to do less.

Do you feel like that’s your legacy, bringing tech up-to-date for the time?

Yeah. Bringing us into the modern world—in terms of the 1980s—I think I did a pretty good job.

And little Lisser (as I call it) over there. The black-box theater in Rothwell was my idea. We’d been trying to figure out what to do with performances during the renovation. Like every intractable problem, we just kicked the can down the road as long as we could, and then we finally had to do something.

I went off to England in summer 2016 and came back to no bookstore. The books had all gone online. So, I walked in and looked at the space, and it took about two milliseconds to say, “We could make this work.” I wrote up a report, did some simple drawings, and presented them. There were other people who wanted the space, but I got it because replacing Lisser was the most immediate need.

We were able to do it almost entirely with stuff we’d pulled out of Lisser: the seats, the platforms, the lighting—we had $25,000 worth of lighting control equipment that had been on a shelf since the new control system was installed in Lisser in 2005. We did that whole black-box project for less than $200,000 because of things like that. June Watanabe, one of our retired dance faculty, had given us a portable performance floor she’d take around to different performance venues. It sat under the stairs in Haas—and the fire department hated it. You can’t dance directly on either concrete or carpeting, which was what was there. So, I set up a couple pieces over here and the dance faculty pranced around on it, and they said, “Yeah, this’ll work fine.” There’s another cost we didn’t have.

In any case, we used the [black-box] theater for a year, and everybody loved it. The performers loved being close to the audience and vice versa. When Lisser reopened, the College really didn’t have anything else to do with that space, so we kept it. It is now one of our critical performance facilities.

Jim Graham with Hallie Johnson and Irving Wiltshire at Haas Pavilion in the 1970s.
How did you get to the role you have now?

I ran the audiovisual department from 1981 to 2014. I was working with the provost’s office primarily until 1997, and then my department was transferred to information technology. I never could figure out why that didn’t happen when information technology was initially formed. I can only think that the provost at the time, Faith Gabelnick, didn’t want to give up too much!

The day after Commencement 2014, the College announced an early retirement incentive program. Bruce McCreary was my boss at that point, and he was great. Since I was getting close to retirement age, we had been talking [about it] for a while, especially how I might reduce my hours without leaving entirely. We decided I could leave the audiovisual department but stay working in the theater, especially since I had been brought in from the theater.

So, on June 30, 2014, I officially retired, and I was unemployed for two months and three days—or something like that. Then, as was planned in advance, I was hired back to run Lisser at one-quarter time. Of course, running a theater that’s operating a regular program has no problem filling up 10 hours a week.

Then, when the College did the renovation in 2017, they reorganized all the production services. When this reorganization came along, they were hiring for someone who could oversee all of it. But I was also working at the Head-Royce School, and I didn’t want to go back to a full-time job at Mills. And so they ended up hiring Alex Zendzian, who is perfect for that job, and his computer skills are so much better than mine. In this era, you can’t survive without them.

Assuming that some theatrical activity does come back next year, I will have completed 50 years of employment at Mills College. I didn’t come to Mills expecting to stay here 50 years, but the College kept giving me interesting things to do.

You know Lisser probably better than anyone. What was your experience with the 2017 renovation?

Somebody said, “Oh, you were in charge of the renovation.” No, I wasn’t! I’m not an architect, but I worked very closely with Karen Fiene and the architects and the consultants. It was a long process—and it should be—to prepare for something like that.

As my father used to say, no matter how much technology advances, the baby still takes nine months. What happened in 2017 is very different from what was on paper in 2014 when the design process began, because they had to figure out what Lisser Hall was made of. There were no blueprints! (Click here to read more about the process of renovating Lisser Hall!)

We had a wonderful structural engineer who was brought in to figure out what was under the plaster. She’d be crawling around in the attic or under the floor and I’d hear her go, “Oh, my. Wow.” Finally, she just looked at me and she said, “You know, this building is standing up out of force of habit more than anything else.” As a result of all her investigations, we learned about tasks that we didn’t know we had to do, but we really needed to do. A lot of the renovation is stuff you don’t see because the construction standards of 1901 and 1925 (when the stage was added) were not the same as they are today.

We did like the idea of making Lisser more a multi-use building than the old fixed seats on the floor would allow. But even now, when you pull out that solid set of seats—like the Rock of Gibraltar— the rack is liable to drift to the downhill side at the front, just an inch or so on the 120-year-old floor!

How many Mills presidents have you been under? Or, how many do you remember?

The first president I remember, only vaguely, was Lynn White, but he left when I was eight years old. You can count Mary Woods Bennett, who was dean of the faculty and twice interim president. The first president I really remember—and the first one who would remember me—was Easton Rothwell, who came in 1959.

I was young enough that I was just a cute kid to him. I’d come to campus after school, and by the time I was in fourth or fifth grade, I’d make the rounds in the offices. The woman in the Office of Public Information would have me cut up old paper to make scratch pads. When I was old enough to really read, the provost’s secretary had me do filing. Easton was grandfatherly, but he would take me very seriously and make sure that his secretary had things for me to do. But when you’re 10 or 12, there’s no reason for you to be called upon to advise on college policy.

Actually, sitting right here (in the Faculty-Staff Dining Room) is probably due to Easton Rothwell. There was a big earthquake in 1957 that a lot of people don’t remember, but I sure do. It wasn’t as big as Loma Prieta or 1906, but it was a hefty jolt. And when Easton came in, the first thing he did was survey all the buildings. (Click here to read more about how the Mills campus has changed over the years.) They discovered that there were three buildings in really bad shape: The old life science building, which was where Lucie Stern is; the gymnasium, which was right here; and the Children’s School, which was in this small building where the Pomodoro sculpture is.

Well, the old life science building and the gymnasium were the two buildings that housed the dance department, so the entire department was suddenly without a home. Soon, they were dancing in the art gallery! The gallery got split in two: half for the dance department and half for the graduate painting studio. Finally, there was another space to move one of the groups, so they asked Alfred Neumeyer, who was the curator: “Do you want to keep the painters or do you want to keep the dancers?” And he said, “Oh, keep the dancers!” because all they needed was a bare floor and a piano.

Easton was here until 1967, then came Rob Wert, who was the president who hired me. Then Barbara White, who came and went fairly quickly, and then Mary Metz. She was the epitome of Southern charm. I had no complaints about her; hell, she gave me a full-time job! But when the Strike came, she decided to leave. Then we had Virginia Smith for a year, and then Jan Holmgren and Alecia [DeCoudreaux].

And then Beth [Hillman] came along— and she and I get along great! I think what cemented me with her was when COVID came along, and in the first big Zoom meeting she was leading, she was almost a silhouette sitting in front of a window. I immediately wrote to her and said, “Let me give you a hand with this.” I brought over some high-intensity lights, and we marked the floor where I thought she should sit and the direction she should face. I think her public presentations are much better.

So, that’s nine presidents!

Jim Graham in September 2021 at the start of the school year that marks his 50th anniversary of official employment at Mills. (Alex Zendzian)
How much interaction have you had with students over the years?

Oh, quite a lot, especially in the theater. I was always consulting with students on their projects. And when I was in the dance department, I was the whole thing: I was the stage technician, so I installed the stage every time we had to use it, but I was also the lighting designer. It was really only after about 2000 that the dance department started bringing in other people, because I was stretched so thin.

But also, in the 1960s, the College started the Upward Bound program (which my mother taught in), and the dance department started a Children’s Summer Arts Program, which was designed to be affordable for the local community. There was a lot of criticism that Mills was not doing enough for the local community, and there was some validity to that. I think it was a half day for six weeks at $100, but it brought in the local community, it propagandized for the arts, and it gave employment to Mills students during the summer.

I was a group leader for a couple of years, so I took a group of 25 around to their various classes, held their hands when they got a cut, and disciplined them as best I could. They didn’t need much; they were happy kids. We then added programming for 12 to 15 year olds. I taught photography for a few summers, and then I became the head of the program for about six years. I’m happy to say that during my time it went from 100 students to 300, with an expanded curriculum. While we couldn’t keep it at $100, we tried to keep it low. As long as we didn’t lose money, the College was just happy to have us because there were no summer session programs in those days. The campus was just sitting here. But when I got the audiovisual job, I gave up the summer program.

You mentioned the Faculty-Staff Club earlier, so it must have been around for a while.

Well the Faculty-Staff Club—as it exists today—is a result of the construction of this building. Before that, there was the women’s faculty club and the men’s faculty club. The men’s faculty club was in some shack up behind the Art Building that was torn down for the renovations there. I have no idea because I was never there. And the women’s faculty club held teas. When they built this building and the Faculty Lounge, they said, “OK, it’s time to integrate, and we will have one Faculty-Staff Club that will meet there.” Somewhere there are bylaws; there’s a whole constitution. Nobody can find it. But it was all written up when this building was built and for years I was treasurer. I was even president once!

They started these weekly cocktail hours, but they couldn’t have a bar because the State of California wouldn’t give us a liquor license. But you could have a club, so there was a whole wall of what we called liquor lockers. And everybody who was a member of the club got a key. So, we were not in a public bar, and that met the laws.

At first, it was just the faculty club. Anybody could be a member, but it did not have staff in the name. It was kind of unusual that I was a member. It was $3 a month. Anybody could afford $3 a month. You go once and you drink up your dues. Now, it’s $5 a month. Big inflation. It was a hoppin’ place in the ’70s and ’80s. You’d get 20, 25 people there when it was on Wednesdays—in those days on a Wednesday afternoon—but as I say, mainly faculty, but with 25 people there were all sorts. 

Now, it’s a completely staff-dominated group; there are very few faculty. But society has just changed so much, and the idea of hanging around after work for a couple hours to have a drink doesn’t necessarily appeal. The people who are running the Faculty-Staff Club now are doing valiantly. They spread the word every week, they make sure everybody knows they’re invited. But of course, in the COVID era, there hasn’t been anybody around. But it’s very nice to have them back now.

Is there something that happened in Mills’ past that surprises people when you tell them about it?

One thing people are surprised [by is] when they learn that we’ve always had men in the graduate programs. There are also a lot of people who live nearby and don’t know about Mills. I was on jury duty once, and I told some guy that I worked at Mills College. He said, “Where’s that?” and I said, “It’s out in East Oakland where the freeways meet.” And he said, “Oh, I drive by there all the time, but I thought it was a cemetery.”

Honestly, [the cemetery] saved us when [Interstate] 580 was being built; they were going to plow the freeway right through the center of the College. Cyrus and Susan [Mills] are buried off in the corner, and you can’t put a public road through a cemetery. So, they had to move the whole freeway, though we did still lose the stables and the riding ring.

Cornelia Van Ness Cress taught equitation from the stables behind the lake. If you went to the right, basically where the off-ramp for Seminary Avenue is now, you got to the stables. She also built one of the houses in Faculty Village, and I remember that she had a very mean dog. When I was a kid, he barked at me whenever we ran into each other in the post office. Cornelia retired, but she stayed in the house and became a huge John Bircher, and the College finally had to tell her that she couldn’t put Mills on the return address of her mailings!

The freeway changed a lot. At the end of the year, we always had the Pinetop Picnic, and you couldn’t eat in the dorms that day because they served fried chicken up there. There was a big fireplace and a stage, and skits were performed after dinner. Then, seniors would walk two by two in their caps and gowns carrying little lanterns. The juniors would walk behind them with lanterns, though without the caps and gowns. And they would all march down to the Oval singing Mills songs, and the dean of students would deliver the “you are going out into the world” speech. Then [the students] would walk back to Lake Aliso, and the classes would stand on opposite sides and sing back and forth to each other. Then, they’d come back down to the Student Union and have hot chocolate and cookies.

It was a wonderful experience. But when the freeway came in, the noise up there [was too much]—now, Pinetop is more or less abandoned. I don’t think there’s anything up there anymore. And the lake is about half the size it used to be because of changing water flow patterns caused by the freeway.

How else have you seen Mills change?

Well, I have a fairly unique perspective in that it’s so long-term. The history of the College even before my time has interested me. When you arrive at Mills in 2021, you see what it is now and you have no idea what got us to where we are today. Mills definitely doesn’t even begin to look like [what it did] when I was a child. Back then, the school had about 600 to 700 students: almost all white, predominantly Republican, a lot of big San Francisco families. Mills has changed, but Mills has changed in response to changes in the bigger society.

I think the hardest thing for Mills is figuring out what it wants to be, because women’s colleges were formed in the 19th century because men wouldn’t let women into other colleges. Like so much else, everything changed after World War II, and a lot of the previously all-male schools went coed. There were 300 women’s colleges in 1960, and now there are about 30. They either found another men’s school to affiliate with, like Bryn Mawr with Haverford, or they went coed themselves. Some succeeded, some didn’t. Quite a few just went out of business.

For Mills, there was no men’s school to merge with. In 1990, the school decided to go coed… well, the trustees decided to go coed. I remember the hue and cry from the students, the faculty and staff, the alumnae— it was just overwhelming. I was fairly agnostic about it, but I did think the fact that we’re a women’s college was our most unique feature. Good liberal arts colleges are not hard to find.

When the decision was reversed, Warren Hellman, the chair of the board who had really pushed the coed thing, said, “Well, this isn’t going to kill you. You’ll survive at least for a while, but you’ll never thrive. You’ll continue to struggle as you have for the last 20 years until something over which you have no control comes along.” I thought the Big Recession in 2008 would be it, but enrollment topped out after that.

And then, I remembered what a financial adviser once said: “If you own a stock and it drops 25 percent in a day, don’t worry. But if it goes down half a point, then it goes down three quarters of a point, then it comes up half a point, but then it goes down a point, and the continual trend is down—that’s when you’ve got to worry.” That’s exactly what happened—enrollment went down from almost 1,600 [students at our peak] to about 1,100 six years later. And then, along came COVID!

There comes a point where no matter how good you are, no matter how much you believe in what you’re doing, if you can’t pay the bills, you’ve got to do something else. So, we’ll see what happens next.