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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Tender love and Brandeis care

Published: October 9, 2009
Section: Features

<i>PHOTO BY Max Shay/The Hoot</i>

PHOTO BY Max Shay/The Hoot

Gwenn Smaxwill had always dreamed of having an office with both a door and windows. Getting one seemed like enough of a reason for thanks, but when she found herself with a door and not only one, but three windows, it seemed like Smaxwill had finally arrived – prime office real estate.

Smaxwill, the director of undergraduate Summer School at Brandeis, and her colleagues were soon going to move into their new building. When she took a look at the office next door to hers, that of Sharon Sokoloff, Smaxwill noticed a problem: because of an adjoining alcove near the staircase, the office next to hers would only have one window. So Smaxwill asked the construction crew if they could close up a wall so Sokoloff would have not one, but two windows, thus making the window space more equitable.

Not only did Smaxwill give up one of her windows, she also made cushions for Sokoloff to put in her new nook, adding an extra bit of tender love and care to her colleague’s new office. That’s what Smaxwill is all about – tender love and care – and you can tell that by the look of her office.

You could go so far as to say that entering the comfort of Smaxwill’s office – filled with colorful paintings, photos of loved ones and cushy pillows – somewhat resembles the feeling one gets when talking to her.

Smaxwill’s office, located on Old South Street, is a bit removed from the main Brandeis campus, but you could hardly say the same of the woman herself. During her 33 years at Brandeis, Smaxwill has immersed herself in all the various sectors of the Brandeis community, developing lifelong bonds with bosses, colleagues and students.

“Brandeis has just given me so much – so many friends, so many families, my path, my education,” she says. “Even the other things that I do for a livelihood, you know, making costumes and sewing clothes for my friends, doing home decorating projects, [and] making them jewelry [relates to Brandeis].”

This passion for her job and her friends won Smaxwill the Lou Ennis Staff Award last year. The Lou Ennis Staff Award is given to the staff member who demonstrates “loyalty and dedication to the university and to its mission,” as described on the award web site.

For those who know Smaxwill, like Assistant Director of Public Safety Bette Reilly this came as no surprise. “She goes above and beyond. She does whatever she can to make it work for people,” Reilly says. “You know [the show] Project Runway’s [phrase] ‘Make it work?’ Well she does.”

Reilly and Smaxwill have been good friends for nearly 24 years, since Reilly was pregnant with her daughter Beth. Since then, the two have spent many years cultivating a close friendship. Smaxwill’s face lights up when she shares stories about Reilly’s children and the fun she has had in using her creative side to create beautiful presents for Bette and her sisters.

You see, Smaxwill, who makes jewelry for herself and her friends, often channels her inner Martha Stewart: “I commit craft crime on a daily basis. It’s just, I can’t be stopped.”

What might come as a surprise to those who don’t know her, though, is the extent of Smaxwill’s craft skills. This summer Smaxwill vacationed in Martha’s Vineyard, bringing along with her three of her favorite things – several of her friends and colleagues, her beloved cats, and a bunch of beads.

“When I was on vacation this year, I brought more beads than clothes,” she says, then chuckles.

And so she brought her passion to the Vineyard. In spite of the semi-constant rain that served as a background to her trip, Smaxwill reveled in the peace of the Vineyard and the chance this vacation gave her to care for and enjoy the company of loved ones.

“I got the Martha Stewart out of my system by making meals for people,” she says.

Smaxwill, just over five feet tall with brown hair and a hearty chuckle that rings like she really means it, has a way of putting you at ease. She’s the kind of woman who worries that you’ll get cold if you step outside without a coat; the kind figure who fixes a stray hair on your face, tucking it behind your ear and the gracious hostess who’s happy to show you around her office building, giving you the interesting history along the way.

Just like the building she works in has an interesting back story, Smaxwill would say we all do too: “I think it’s important to say that we all have back stories, and that how you survive them and…decide to face them and survive them and deal with them is what makes you who you are.”

Smaxwill became who she is after a life filled with hard work and creativity. After finishing her classes at Lawrence University in Northern Wisconsin in March of 1975, Smaxwill flew on a one-way ticket from Wisconsin to Boston to start work in the development office of the Cambridge School of Weston. When she arrived, Smaxwill moved into a home she would share for 10 years with a family who was looking for someone to live them.

During these 10 years, Smaxwill became a member of this family of strangers. The matriarch of the family, Robin Wood, would prove to be one of Smaxwill’s dearest friends and mentors.

After working at CSW for about a year and a half, Smaxwill spent several months without a job. She supported herself during this time by painting rooms in the house she was staying in at the time, which was under renovation.

In 1976, Smaxwill came to Brandeis, and like many phases of her life, she has made sure it was a comfortable fit. She has been associated with the summer school since 1978, just four years after its 1974 founding.

Like many phases of her life, she has made sure her job at the Summer School is a comfortable fit. Many people get bored with their jobs and leave to seek a new challenge or the next best thing, but for Smaxwill, Brandeis has always been the next best thing. Every two or three years, she explains, she was presented with a new challenge and she accepted them with enthusiasm. In 1997, she embarked on a self-prescribed challenge of her own, starting work on her master’s degree in management in human services at Brandeis’ Heller School for Social Policy and Management. She completed her degree in 2004.

At this time, Smaxwill’s mentor and friend Robin Wood hosted a graduation party for her. Shortly thereafter, Wood found out she had cancer for the second time in her life. After surviving her second bout with cancer, and a 30-year period of remission, Wood passed away last February from cancer and complications from heart disease.

It was around the same time that Smaxwill was awarded the Lou Ennis Staff Award. “The Ennis award came at exactly the time that her health turned to the worse, and so it kind of helped boost my spirits,” she says.

For a time, Smaxwill kept an e-mail folder of congratulatory messages from members of the Brandeis community. “It was just so touching, the people who reached out,” she says. “It was just a really wonderful experience.”

It was a time for the Brandeis community to give back a little something to the woman who had given them so much during her 36 years at Brandeis. During this span of time, Smaxwill has happily accepted the challenges her job at the Summer School has posed.

And not all of those challenges or projects have come about during the summer. Though the actual action of summer classes takes place outside of the normal academic year, Smaxwill’s year is filled with work regarding those precious months of heat and sun.

“My life functions much more on an annual schedule because the Summer School replicates in a microcosm everything that the university has a separate office to do during the academic year,” she says.

Throughout the academic year, Smaxwill works on the marketing of the summer program, helps with faculty contracts and course solicitation, reviews applications for special programs and does data analysis.

During the summer, among other tasks, Smaxwill supervises on-campus housing, plans budgets and serves as the disabilities coordinator for her division.

If her day job at the Summer School and her side craft work weren’t enough, Smaxwill also serves on the Justice Brandeis Semester committee.

Keeping busy is nothing new for Smaxwill, but she’s never so busy that she forgets her roots, or her friends. She still holds close ties with former students who met at Brandeis and now are married with six children, she still vacations with the family she used to live with, and she maintains a position at the first job she held out of college.

Smaxwill still works at the Cambridge School of Weston, making costumes for the theater department. She’s currently preparing for a show set to start in two weeks, and is busy making 60 costumes for the performers.

As such, over the next 14 days you’re most likely to find her in front of her DVD player, working her fingers to the bone, crafting beautiful clothes for people she’s likely befriended.

It’s a hectic and warm life Smaxwill leads, and she wouldn’t have it any other way.