Members of Quincy House and other Harvard affiliates gathered in Memorial Church Saturday afternoon to honor the life and work of former Quincy House Faculty Dean Deborah J. Gehrke.
Speakers at the event — including family members, Quincy students, alumni, tutors, and fellow faculty deans — told personal stories about Gehrke on topics ranging from ping pong to karaoke to Quincy’s 2018 Straus Cup victory.
Known by House affiliates as the “fun dean,” Gehrke served in her position alongside her husband, Lee, for nearly 12 years before her death in December at the age of 66. Lee Gehrke informed Quincy residents in January that he would step down at the end of the academic year, citing the loss of his wife.
The couple’s two children, Andrew R. Gehrke and Lindsay Gehrke-Shainker, addressed the crowd assembled in Memorial Church on Saturday. Andrew said he wanted to set a tone of “celebration” for his mother and noted that her life was spent driving away sadness from those she knew.
Multiple speakers also recounted meaningful late-night text exchanges with Gehrke. Former Pforzheimer House Faculty Dean Nicholas A. Christakis said he and Gehrke texted about everything from insomnia to ice cream.
Leslie A. Kirwan ’79 — dean of administration and finance for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences — said she met Deborah and Lee Gehrke during the renovation of Quincy’s Stone Hall, which ended in 2013. Kirwan cited both deans’ “enthusiastic” attitude about the construction, which set a “high bar” for future renewals.
Kirwan also recounted a unique — and perhaps unrealistic — plan Deborah Gehrke had originally proposed to mark Stone Hall’s reopening.
“When planning the grand opening of Stone Hall, Deb had the bright idea to mount a zip line from the faculty dean’s residence into the courtyard which she intended to ride down herself to kick-start the festivities!” she said. “While that did not happen, I have no trouble picturing Deb flying down the zip line, golden hair flying, and laughing her infectious deep laugh.”
Christakis said students’ devotion to the late faculty dean bordered on “fanaticism” and praised Gehrke’s ability to always be “playful” and “genuine.”
“Deb was funny and spirited, and an astute observer of human frailty,” he said. “I have spent my whole professional career trying to understand the human condition — as a hospice physician and as a social scientist.”
“But I can tell you that no training in the world — no science, no education — can capture the meaning of losing someone as truly alive as Deb,” Christakis added.
Other speakers included Director of the Office for the Arts Jack Megan, Quincy House alumni Giannina “Gia” Marciano ’18 and Karen Chee ’17, current Quincy House resident Cameron B. Jones ’20, non-resident tutor Field Brown, and Divinity School Professor and Interim Pusey Minister Stephanie A. Paulsell.
Quincy House tutor Michael F. Esposito ’09 recalled the lessons that Gehrke taught him during his time living in the House, describing them as “Yoda-like.” One particular adage — that “no one is safe” — served as both a serious reminder and a source of humor for him and other tutors.
“It’s less ominous than it sounds, although, as tutors, seeing that subject line in your inbox usually meant an email with the silliest and most ridiculous pictures of us Deb could find from the most recent House event,” he said. “For tutors, ‘no one is safe,’ also means that you need to be ready to step up on behalf of the House at any moment, and that may require leaving your dignity at the door.”
Esposito added that Gehrke’s refrain, “no crying in ping pong,” not only displayed her love for the game — often pulling unsuspecting Quincy students into spontaneous matches — but also her attitude of selflessness and service.
“When I found out that Deb had died, I cried for a long time,” he said. “And then I practically felt her jab me in the ribs and tell me: ‘no crying in ping pong.’ Get back out there and keep going.”
—Staff writer Declan J. Knieriem can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DeclanKnieriem.
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