Penny Kaelber, Iowa Memorial Union
There’s not a question that Penny Kaelber, manager of the University’s Campus Information Center since 1989, hasn’t heard. But no matter how off-the-wall it may be, it’s Kaelber’s job, and that of her student employees, to find the answer and have guests feel good about the interaction. Kaelber and her staff also help folks find housing, offer a tutor referral service, and manage the University’s master calendar. So, is she the world’s most organized person? “I’m organized enough to be effective,” Kaelber says. “But my spice rack isn’t alphabetized.” fyi recently spoke with Kaelber about her work at the University, along with her Hollywood past.
What are some of the typical questions you get asked at the Campus Information Center?
“I need housing—how do I find it?” and “I can’t charge on my ID—why not?” are two. The questions vary depending on the time of year—during summer Orientation sessions, we have a lot of parents who want information on resources for their student: recreational opportunities, safety, student activities, and so on. Every week we have different conferences and events held in the IMU—this week it’s Iowa prison industries training, and next month we’ll have family physicians here. So the questions change all the time, depending on who we’re talking with.
What are some of the more unusual questions you’ve gotten?
We’re working with humans here, so we get all kinds of questions. I’ve heard “What’s this black film on my house?” and “How can I get a ride to Omaha?” We often get people who don’t know where to start in their search for answers, and if we can’t answer their question, we’ll point them to someone who can. If there’s an office on campus that’s an expert on the question, we always direct the guest there first—for example, we provide prospective students with materials and answers about the University, but also make sure to refer them to the Admissions Office, because they’re the real experts.
How does the master calendar work?
The web calendar includes information about 4,000 University-sponsored events each year (http://imu.uiowa.edu/cic/calendar). Users can submit events at the site or contact us by phone or e-mail. We try to make submitting events as convenient as possible.
I’m also not above doing a little sleuthing to learn about an event—if I see a flyer about an event not on the master calendar, I’ll pull that thread and see if I can follow it through. The calendar is challenging—we often get three different people submitting the same event with three different starting times, for example, so it requires a lot of follow-up to make sure it’s accurate. But it’s so important for campus groups to have visibility for their activities. We also let them know about other ways to market their events and the resources on campus that can help them do that.
What’s your favorite part about your job?
Each year there are six to eight work-study students here, and each of them gets lots of training about the subtleties of communication and how to create a sense of hospitality and reassurance for our guests. I really enjoy watching when they’ve learned to combine that with information and resources in order to make things happen for a guest. It’s a skill that they’ll have forever.
How has your work changed over the years?
I was a student worker here in the 1970s, and at the time we had no computers, no Internet, just two huge Rolodexes with hundreds of cards. These were the resource that we used to answer questions or refer people.
Now, so much is online, which is both good and bad. We all know that web sites aren’t always up-to-date or complete, so it’s sometimes challenging to make sure information is accurate. It also means that by the time some people call us they’re often frustrated—they’ve been surfing the web, trying to find answers on their own. We’re all used to things being a quick Google away, and when they’re not, people don’t like it. It requires an increased level of communication skills to help people in these situations.
Okay, let’s find out a bit more about you. Rumor has it that you met your husband at work. Would you tell us about that?
John and I had each started working in the IMU in 1988. About eight years ago, we developed a friendship and had our first date—an Elton John concert. The rest is history. We’ve been married for four years.
What can we find you doing on your days off?
John and I and our 10-year-old yellow lab, Bill the Dog, like to go trail hiking. I like to go to consignment stores at least once a week. I really enjoy arranging flowers—I’m doing the flowers for my niece’s wedding in June. John is the expert gardener in the family, and I’m the “sous gardener.” I’m also the sous chef—he’s a fabulous cook, and I make salads and clean up.
What’s something your colleagues would be surprised to know about you?
I worked as a costumer on the set of a TV movie. It was in 1980, and I was living in Sunset Beach, Calif. The movie was a kind of TV version of Midnight Express called Escape. It starred Colleen Dewhurst, Vincent Schiavelli, and Timothy Bottoms, and we filmed on location in Puerto Rico. After that, I had the opportunity to do another job, but the movie industry lifestyle and hours were not for me.
Okay, how about sharing some of your favorites with fyi readers?
Food: My husband’s gourmet shrimp pizzas. And his green chili enchiladas, which are some of the best I’ve ever tasted. Oh, and his raspberry brownies.
Book: I’m a big fan of Robert Parker and Sue Grafton.
Music: I like a lot of smoky blues, and I’m a huge Eric Clapton fan.
TV show: I find Boston Legal pretty entertaining, and I never miss CBS Sunday Morning.
Movie: My all-time favorite is Out of Africa, and I also like any movie in which things blow up, like the new James Bond movie, Casino Royale.
By Linzee Kull McCray