Alumni Profiles

Following Phil from The Campus to Punxsutawney


Tom Chapin (left), with Punxsutawney Phil and Bill Deeley, the president of the Groundhog Club and Phil's former handler. (Photo by Mike Ishman/The Punxsutawney Spirit)

Punxsutawney Phil works only one day a year, but it’s enough to put his hometown on the map.

“People know where Punxsutawney is, and it’s because of Groundhog Day,” says Tom Chapin ’96, the editor of the town’s daily, the Punxsutawney Spirit.

For this Pennsylvania mining and factory town, Groundhog Day is the big day of the year. The town’s population increases fourfold. Local motels are filled. Cash registers ring. The newspaper prints extra copies and picks up extra advertising. A fireworks display lights up the midwinter night. News crews arrive from around the world. “Last year, I met a TV reporter from Russia,” Chapin says.

There are lots of groundhogs, but Phil is special. He predicts when winter will end: if he sees his shadow, as he did this year, we’re in for six more weeks of winter. If he doesn’t, look for an early spring.

Phil has been famous for quite a while. But in the old days his pronouncement rated a story in the newspaper and perhaps a brief mention on the evening news. Then came Bill Murray’s 1993 movie Groundhog Day. “It’s never been the same since,” says Chapin, who first wrote about Groundhog Day for The Campus. “Before the movie, they would get crowds of 1,000. After the movie came out, we started getting 30,000 people. If you tried to get a room for Groundhog Day now, you couldn’t do it. They’re pretty much booked a year in advance.”

The animal that inspires all of this lives a quiet life with three other groundhogs in the children’s section of the public library. On every day but one, his life is predictable: he eats and sleeps. But on the evening of February 1, Phil is taken out to Gobbler’s Knoll, a mile or so south of town, and put in a stump to spend the night in preparation for his next-day duties.

The following morning, the crowd gathers and the members of the Groundhog Club arrive in top hats and tuxedos. Phil’s handlers put him atop the stump, and the Groundhog Club’s president stoops to hear Phil’s pronouncement in “groundhogeese.” Two scrolls have been prepared in advance. After Phil has spoken, the proper scroll is selected, the prediction is read, and an enormous cheer goes up. “It’s a lot like a rock concert,” says Chapin. “Except the people are better behaved, and there’s a groundhog involved.”

Chapin starts preparations for Groundhog Day coverage a month in advance. It’s a lot of extra work for the Spirit’s staff of six and a half, which puts out a morning paper every day but Sunday. But Chapin isn’t complaining, and when the big day arrives, he covers it himself. The weather may be nasty, the skies overcast, but no matter. He sits there and freezes along with everyone else, waiting for Phil’s pronouncement. “It’s a chance to shake off the winter blues,” he says. “I love it.”


Reclaiming La Belle


When a ship has lain on the ocean floor for centuries, it has much in common with a brittle eighty-year-old whose bones could snap under everyday stress. So when the seventeenth-century frigate La Belle was recovered off the Texas coast fifteen years ago, it created an enormous challenge for nautical archeologist Peter Fix ’87. He’s spent more than twelve years working to preserve her remains.

The French ship, which went down in a winter storm in 1686, was presumed lost until GPS technology combined with information from seventeenth-century French and Spanish documents finally located the wreck. And it wasn’t just any wreck. La Belle was part of a four-ship fleet headed by René LaSalle, the explorer who had claimed the Louisiana Territory for France.

Two challenges confronted Fix, the assistant director for maritime archeology and conservation at Texas A&M University. He had to find a way to dry out and preserve the ship’s nearly four hundred wooden components, including the long curved beams that formed her ribs. And he had to come up with an unobtrusive support system that would allow a museum to display the ship while reducing stress on her fragile structure.

Air-drying the waterlogged remains would have warped, twisted, and cracked them, so the conservation team planned to soak her parts in a bath of polyethylene glycol, a form of wax derived from petroleum. “But when oil reached $140 a barrel, we saw a 300 percent increase in cost,” says Fix. And, he added, “Money’s tight.” The plan was modified to use roughly one-tenth as much polyethylene glycol, supplemented by a process that would freeze-dry the remains using the same technology used to freeze-dry coffee. The work will be done in a chamber forty feet long and eight feet in diameter. “Our goal is to remove the water using the gentlest method possible,” Fix says. In the meantime, the remains are kept submerged in a pool of purified water with a low percentage of polyethylene glycol.

Once the wood has been dried and stabilized, it can be reassembled, though reassembly presents a problem as well. When built, the ship’s components supported one another and held the frigate together. But even with preservation, the rescued pieces will be much too brittle to do that. So Fix developed a system of fiberglass bolts with a support system of carbon fiber and fiberglass that can hold La Belle together but won’t block the view of observers.

Fix grew up near Mystic, Connecticut, home of Mystic Seaport, the nation’s premiere maritime museum, where he worked before and during his years at Allegheny. After graduating with his degree in history, he settled on a career in nautical archeology and chose the highly rated program at Texas A&M. He is now finishing his Ph.D. while working for the university’s world-class conservation program.

Since the planet’s oceans are littered with sunken vessel, Fix’s playing field is global, and his work takes him both far from his Texas base and well below the ocean surface.

“We go where the wrecks are,” Fix says. “If that happens to be in Indonesia, or the Aegean, that’s where you’ll find us.”

— D O U G  M c I N N I S

The Power of Computing-and Mentoring

Lori Pollock ’81

Lori Pollock ’81 had no idea she would be a minority in her field when she took her first computer science class as a sophomore. Among the first three Allegheny graduates with a B.S. in computer science, she went on to earn her Ph.D. from the University of Pittsburgh. Now she’s working to bring other women into a field in which the percentage of women starting in the major is only 5 to 9 percent nationwide.

A professor in the Department of Computer and Information Sciences at the University of Delaware, Pollock says that although she never felt that unusual as a woman in computer science in the early 1980s, a lot has changed. “While all the other sciences are making gains and increasing the number of women in their disciplines, the number of women in computer science is continuing to decrease,” she says. “Today I can walk into a classroom of undergraduates and there may not be any women in a class of thirty students.”

Pollock first started looking into why this phenomenon was happening—and then into ways to reverse it. “Some people believe that teachers, guidance counselors, and parents don’t understand what computer science is and how much of an impact it’s having on society,” she says. “It’s easy to understand what a doctor does and how that work impacts other people. But people don’t understand the role of computer science in society.” But Pollock notes that computer science is behind many of the advances in other fields: in the health industry, social networking, art, and education, to name just a few.

When Pollock learned that middle school is when girls tend to lose interest in math and science, she decided to target that age group using computer science as an educational tool—and that dovetailed with her interest in getting computer science majors at the University of Delaware interested in service learning.

A nearby charter school in an economically disadvantaged area had received a donation of 1,400 XO laptops specially designed for kids. “I called them up after we learned how to program the XOs and said, ‘Here’s what we’re doing—is there anything we can do to collaborate with you?’ ” she recalls. As a result, last fall four teams of University of Delaware students partnered with seventh- and eighth-grade teachers to create learning games for middle-school students to use on the new laptops. “We also want to explore how to incorporate computational thinking in the classroom,” Pollock says, “and help the young students learn to think algorithmically and with abstraction.”

Pollock is also involved as an advocate with CRA-W, the Computing Research Association Committee on the Status of Women in Computing Research. “Our goal is to increase the number of women in computing and to help the women who are in the field to succeed in their careers,” notes Pollock, who creates and organizes national mentoring workshops for graduate students, faculty, and industry researchers.

“I’m hoping that the mentoring is helping women in the field go further in their careers than they thought they could. Because we’re such a minority in this field, it can be intimidating for women,” Pollock says. “But I hope the mentoring will give them the confidence to go forward and pursue their goals.”


Creating Films With Positive Energy

BlockProfile-FylaktosEleftherios “lefty” Fylaktos ’95 has all the makings of an award-winning documentary filmmaker.  An ardent observer of the human condition, he is fascinated by people and their stories, eager to reveal and interpret their realities through his lens. In March 2008, the international film community took notice: Fylaktos’s latest documentary, the Archelon Bubble, won the Audience Award for a film under forty-five minutes at the prestigious thessaloniki international Film Festival.  The volunteers of ARCHELON, the nonprofit sea turtle protec- tion society of Greece, were the perfect subject for Fylaktos, a native of Thessaloniki, who says he is drawn to people who just “do the right thing.” Every year, more than 500 volunteers from around the world travel to Greece at their own expense to assist ARCHELON in its mission to conserve loggerhead sea turtles and their habitats, rescuing marine life in danger of extinction. ARCHELON’s volunteers live in rudimentary camps for weeks, working on turtle nesting beaches and at the organization’s rescue center to help with rehabilitation and restoration projects.  “What is most interesting is that they form a surreal world,” Fylaktos says of the volunteers.  “You could call it a country—a country of positive energy and good intentions.” He immersed himself in that country for twenty days to produce a documentary entirely on his own: no film crew, no production studio—just Fylaktos and his camera. “i did what they did,” he says. “I was part of the rotation and followed their schedule. i went there as a documentarist and left as a volunteer.” Fylaktos also left with twenty hours of film footage and the arduous task of editing it down to thirty minutes. But his hard work paid off. By submitting his documentary to thessaloniki’s annual film festival—considered one of the premier festivals of Southeastern Europe for new and emerging filmmakers—Fylaktos earned recognition not only for his talents as a filmmaker but also for the organization and cause that first inspired him. He is now showing his documentary at festivals and universities, and Prisma+, a digital television channel in Greece, plans to broadcast it this year. today, Fylaktos lives in Athens and works in the sports depart- ment of the Hellenic Broadcasting Corporation, ERT S.A. He has worked as a professional director for eleven years, both as a freelancer and for public television, and has produced several notable documentaries, including two for the Food and Agriculture organization of the UN (FAO) at the urging of his good friend Nedzad Ajanovic ’95, an FAO field program officer.  A communication arts major at Allegheny, where he chose to study abroad, Fylaktos traces his first encounter with moviemaking back to the College. “I was really blown away when i started using the camera and editing equipment. editing especially made an impact on me because I could manipulate the images I shot,” he says. “i just knew this was what i wanted to do. i thank Allegheny for teaching me to have an open mind and to listen to people and their stories.”

—Abby Collier ’ 03

Finding the Balance

BlockProfile-CruzMaribel Cruz ’87 has found a way to satisfy her left brain’s critical thinking and her right brain’s desire to create. Taking Allegheny’s interdisciplinary attitude to heart, this dancing doctor’s dual career keeps her balanced. Currently a selection analyst/ consultant with the gallup organization, Cruz works in Lincoln, Nebraska.

“It’s a direct relationship between what i studied in school and what i do on a day to day basis,” she says. “I do a lot of research and development, developing behavior interviews, consulting with industry leaders in terms of how to be more effective in their leadership.” A double major in psychology and english at Allegheny, Cruz found these academic studies appealing and rewarding. But she also wanted to continue to follow her passion for dance. Born and raised in new York City, Cruz took classes in the city starting at age three. When she first entered the dance department at Allegheny, “i was definitely a bunhead,” she says. “i had my first dance class with Jan Hyatt, and I was thinking ‘I’m well trained.’ Jan looked at me and said ‘I want you to dance organically from your center.’ ” Slowly and surely Cruz incorporated modern dance technique into her work. When she graduated from Allegheny, she went to the university of Michigan in Ann Arbor to complete her doctorate in psychology. But she didn’t leave dance behind. Cruz says Michigan’s dance program was top notch, with teachers who had studied with Martha Graham, Alvin Ailey, Merce Cunningham, Lucas Hoving, and Jose Limon. While in Michigan, Cruz was given the opportunity to dance in modern dance icon Bill T. Jones’s controversial last Supper at Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a piece that confronts issues of Christianity, slavery, and the AIDS epidemic. And its third act is performed nude. “I thought, ‘I’ve got to do this, it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity,’ ” she says. She also danced with compa-nies in Ann Arbor, and, after moving to Nebraska, she helped to form the Lincoln Contemporary Dance Project. The company is in its seventh year this season. “We’ve got a lot of freedom, we choreograph all of our pieces, and it’s a very collaborative democratic process,” she says. “We don’t have a hierarchy. We share an aesthetic and a philosophy.” Last november, Cruz returned to Allegheny to share her experiences, lecturing about performing in Jones’s work. She also prepared a work of choreography for the students, which they performed on Martin luther King, Jr. Day, and she lectured in the psychology department. “Allegheny had its hand in preparing me for my life after school,” says Cruz. “It’s nice to be able to balance those things. to me when you’ve got a multifaceted approach to your life, it creates more opportunities. through dance i’ve met Asian dragon dancers, and tibetan monks, belly dancers … dance has enriched me.”

–Emily Macel ’04

Expressing Values Through Business

BlockProfile-ElliottWhen Gary Elliott ’72 departed from his home in Los Altos Hills, California, for Allegheny last fall, he forgot one important thing.  An overcoat. global brand manager for Hewlett packard, Elliott arrived on campus as a guest presenter for professor Ishita Sinha Roy’s Communication Arts 260 class, having prepared what Sinha Roy called “an amazing talk” on lessons in corporate marketing. But Elliott was ill prepared for the snow that arrived in Meadville in early november. “He was very brave about it, though,” says Sinha Roy, laughing.

Elliott did not, however, forget the curiosity he has always associated with Allegheny students. “Having a curious mind is a requisite for anyone in business today,” he says. “I think when you have exposure to the kinds of programs that Allegheny offers, it opens up your mind and inspires you to think of different solutions. that curiosity has never left me.” A Psychology major at Allegheny, Elliott remembers one particular psychology course that “really probed people and ideas … one where we were engaged in a number of exercises where we were creating business programs and new ways of communications.” The “field work” nature of the course inspired Elliott, who then continued that research for his senior thesis. For his comp, Elliott traveled to new York to visit advertising agencies. He worked to understand the various motivating factors and decisions behind commercial advertisements.

“I still have a spark and desire and energy to create pro- grams that inspire and motivate,” says Elliott, who has helped forge prominent partnerships for Hp with Disney, the Sydney opera House, tiMe inc., Starbucks, and Dreamworks, to name a few. Elliott’s work and vision for HP are much celebrated in the corporate media sector. He was instrumental in melding the HP and Compaq brands when the companies merged in 2002. He earned the prestigious Art Directors Club 2004 Vision Award, AdWeek magazine’s Campaign of the Year, and Creativity magazine’s international Advertiser of the Year. But the students in Sinha Roy’s class may remember Elliott for some of his other endeavors. “He shared examples of HP’s work doing community and social building,” says Sinha Roy. “After Hurricane Katrina, HP worked with restoring family photo albums that had been destRoyed—it was very moving.” She says it was a reminder to students that “working for a corporation goes beyond marketing and making a buck; it is about thinking of being a good citizen.” As head of Hp’s global Citizenship board, Elliott recognizes a direct connection between the responsibilities he has as an individual citizen of the world and the responsibilities that Hp has as a global business. “It is about really living out the values you have on a personal level,” he says, “and expressing that through a business.”

—Kendra Stanton Lee ’ 02

Alex Steffen '90

Building the Future That We Want

By Kevin Gray

steffenAfter graduating from Allegheny, Alex Steffen sought life experiences that would help shape his future. He found them in other countries.

Steffen spent six months in the “newly free” Eastern Europe–where he met and shared ideas with people from across the globe–before working as an environmental reporter for the Japan Times.

“This proved to be a series of influential experiences,” Steffen says. “I was really exposed to the environmental problems that were beginning to emerge. Those experiences convinced me that I wanted to find better ways to deal with our environment.”

A history major, Steffen counts his time at Allegheny as one of those key experiences. “Allegheny offers extraordinary opportunities to have real conversations with terrific professors,” he says. “Those conversations helped me build critical thinking tools that I use in all areas of my life.”

Armed with those tools and galvanized by his work abroad, Steffen started a movement in 2003 when he helped found the online magazine, which has allowed him to extend his ability to help people change the way they think about the environment. “real solutions already exist for building the future we want,” notes the site’s mission statement. “It’s just a matter of grabbing hold and getting moving.”

“There is a traditional environmental narrative that says humans are flawed, nature is perfect, we are bound to destroy nature and anything we do to prevent that destruction is going to make our lives worse,” explains Steffen, a resident of Seattle. “We point out that there are ways we can solve major environmental and social problems while making people’s lives better.”

With a staff of just four full-time employees, the site relies on a large network of volunteers, freelancers, and contractors. Still, Worldchanging rang up more than 2.5 million unique visitors last year, Steffen says.

Steffen edits the site and works with teams of writers and guest contributors to produce content. He also runs the business side of the organization, including fund-raising and administration. And, as Worldchanging has received greater exposure, Steffen is often sought as an interview subject or panel expert.

“I do more traveling than I would like to,” he says. “But the most rewarding thing about the work I do is that I get to interact with many brilliant people. I also get enormous satisfaction in knowing that what we do is making a positive impact.”

This article was featured in the Summer/Fall 2008 issue of Allegheny Magazine.

Pamela Sims Jones '82

Good Works, Good Results

By Josh Tysiachney

simsjonesThe 7.5 square miles that are Trenton, New Jersey, represent a world of opportunity for Pamela Sims Jones.

Like other small cities, New Jersey’s state capital faces its share of challenges: poverty, struggling neighborhoods, and a downtown devoid of people once the workday ends. “I couldn’t just sit back and not do anything,” says Sims Jones, who moved to Trenton in 1984.

Sims Jones directs Leadership Trenton, a seven-year-old initiative aimed at empowering community leaders to make the region a better place to live and work. Each year around thirty individuals–known as fellows–participate in the ten-month program, attending experiential seminars focused on community development, local government, race and diversity, education, technology, healthcare, human services, and public safety.

The fellows also create sustainable initiatives to support work done by the area’s 600 nonprofit organizations, with Leadership Trenton alumni continuing to contribute their talents to them. more than 180 people have completed the program, which is part of the John S. Watson Institute for Public Policy at Thomas Edison State College.

A graduate of leadership Trenton’s inaugural class, Sims Jones took the helm in 2003 after two years with the New Jersey Department of State’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Commemorative Commission. She also brought sixteen years of experience with publishing firms red Sea Press and Africa World Press, which she represented at trade shows and with resellers around the globe.

World travel didn’t diminish Sims Jones’s commitment to her local community. She is the board secretary of the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen, board president of the Beyond Diversity resource Center, board chair of the New Jersey Coretta Scott King Humanitarian Group, and serves on her neighborhood’s civic association.

Indeed, for Sims Jones, neighborhood is much more than an abstract concept. Startled by the abundance of beautifully constructed–but vacant and dilapidated–homes in Trenton, she and three friends began to investigate how they might revitalize a city block. In the late 1980s, they formed a nonprofit organization, Bellevue restoration, and purchased city-owned houses on Bellevue Avenue for little or no cost.

“We started looking at families who wanted to be first-time home- owners and would be committed to the neighborhood,” says Sims Jones. State and federal funding helped with renovation expenses. But in their spare time Sims Jones and her friends also worked alongside the families buying the homes to gut them and prepare them for renovation.

With careful planning and hard work, they rehabilitated six homes, one of which Sims Jones and a friend purchased after a family decided late in the process not to move there. She and her husband, rodell, her high school sweetheart, still live in that house and remain involved in efforts to beautify the neighborhood.

“I love when I see good works bringing about good results,” says Sims Jones. “I always tell people, ‘You do what you can with what you have. Don’t ever think that you can’t make a change–because you can.'”

This article was featured in the Summer/Fall 2008 issue of Allegheny Magazine.

Ralph Intorcio '51

Forever Young @ Heart

By Josh Tysiachney

intorcioDelivering Meals on Wheels helped put Ralph Intorcio on the road to impersonating legendary singer Carol Channing.

In the early 1980s Intorcio was shuttling food prepared in the kitchen at the Walter Salvo House, a retirement center in Northampton, Massachusetts. The kitchen’s manager, Bob Cilman, had formed a fledgling singing group of senior citizens and invited Intorcio to audition and, soon thereafter, to join.

That group, which became known as the Young@Heart Chorus, is featured in a documentary, Young@Heart, released recently in the U.S. by Fox Searchlight. The movie made a big splash at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and won the International Documentary Award at the los Angeles Film Festival.

Over the years Young@Heart’s repertoire has been anything but the expected. That’s perhaps evidenced best by Intorcio, who would don a dress and blond wig to perform as Channing, an impersonation started spontaneously during a show. As the audience applauded after a song, Cilman plunked a wig on Intorcio’s head and asked if he knew the words to Channing’s “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.”

Young@Heart also provides its unique interpretation of songs by artists including the Rolling Stones, Sonic Youth, the Ramones, and Radiohead. Learning those more contemporary pieces was especially challenging, says Intorcio, since the group didn’t always like them at first. “Many of them were songs my son used to listen to that we could never appreciate,” he notes, “but the audience reaction was always so gratifying.”

Intorcio traveled to Europe thirteen times, as well as to Hawaii and Australia, to perform on the group’s “Road to Heaven” tour. “We only had about fifty in the audience the first night,” he recalls of the opening performance in the Netherlands, “but when our best singer did an encore in Dutch, we had them. The place filled up for the rest of the week.”

Intorcio, who toured with the Allegheny Singers as a student, doesn’t appear in the Young@Heart documentary; he left the group in 2003 when he moved to Florida. But, as a past member, he was invited to introduce the documentary at this year’s Sarasota Film Festival and answer questions afterwards. That was a fitting honor for Intorcio, who dedicates much of his time to helping his community. He serves as president of the Hearing Loss Association of Sarasota, advocating for captions on screens at area theaters and other businesses. Intorcio, who hears with the help of a cochlear implant and other assistive devices, also does readings to raise funds for a local performing arts theater.

Intorcio looks back fondly at the camaraderie and adventures he experienced with Young@Heart. “I feel like I’m right up on the stage with them,” he says of the documentary. “We never got paid but were wined and dined and saw the world.”

This article was featured in the Summer/Fall 2008 issue of Allegheny Magazine.

Jill Staaf '99

A Firefighter Blazing New Trails

Softball, graduate studies in counseling, and a stepmom all played supporting roles in Jill Staaf’s journey to becoming Meadville’s first female firefighter.

At Allegheny Staaf was a standout softball and volleyball player, co-captaining both squads. The psychology major’s career began predictably for someone with those athletic credentials: she worked first as an assistant softball coach at Centenary College in Louisiana and then as head coach at Lakeland College in Wisconsin, where she earned a master’s degree in counseling.

staafA community service requirement for the degree prompted Staaf to join the local volunteer fire department. “I just loved it,” she says. “It was exciting and challenging and a team atmosphere, which is what I really liked about playing sports at Allegheny.”

A few months later, Staaf’s stepmother told her that the City of Meadville had an opening for a firefighter. “I thought, Well, it’s worth a shot,” she says.

And indeed it was. In August 2004, she returned to her native northwestern Pennsylvania to join the Meadville Fire Department. “There are always the stereotypes,” she says, “and it was almost like breaking into the good old boys club.” But acceptance and respect came quickly from her male colleagues, especially after Staaf worked her first structure fire.

Staaf says that with structure fires unpredictability adds to the challenge of what’s already a difficult task. “You could be sitting there eating dinner, and then, all of a sudden, two minutes later, you’re in the middle of the fire,” she explains. “That’s the tough part—making sure that you’re seeing everything as you’re doing it, not rushing in with a closed mind, but watching for changing conditions, making sure the building is staying structurally sound. There’s a lot to watch out for.”

But the job entails much more than battling blazes. Staaf, who is a certified emergency medical technician, says preparation is paramount—checking each morning that radios and communication systems work properly, maintaining vehicles and other equipment, and participating in ongoing training.

Staaf also coordinates a popular program that allows local citizens to bring in child car seats for safety inspections. Along with ensuring that seats are properly installed, the department replaces damaged or outdated ones free of charge, thanks to a grant Staaf secured.

It’s the satisfaction that comes from helping others that drives Staaf to continually hone her skills.

“Every fire, every accident, even every EMS (Emergency Medical Services) call is so different,” she says. “Whether it’s how to handle a patient, or where to position the trucks, or how to attack a certain fire, you’re learning something new all the time.”

—Josh Tysiachney

This article was featured in the Winter/Spring 2008 issue of Allegheny Magazine.