skip to main content
Home  /  Interviews  /  Suzette Cummings

Suzette Cummings

Suzette Cummings

Assistant to the Vice President for Student Affairs, Caltech (Ret.)

By David Zierler, Director of the Caltech Heritage Project

February 7, 2024

DAVID ZIERLER: This is David Zierler, Director of the Caltech Heritage Project. It's Wednesday, Feb 7, 2024. I am delighted to be at the home of Suzette Cummings. Suzette, wonderful to be with you. Thank you for having me.

SUZETTE CUMMINGS: Thank you. I feel honored to be part of the Heritage Project, how exciting!

ZIERLER: Wonderful. Suzette, tell me please if you have any current affiliations at Caltech or you're enjoying a true retirement.

CUMMINGS: No, except my husband Alan Cummings of course is still very involved with his research, so I feel like I'm still part of Caltech.

ZIERLER: Socially, how do you keep in touch?

CUMMINGS: I still have dear, dear friends. I have lunch weekly with friends from Caltech. Some still work at Caltech and some are retired as well as I am.

ZIERLER: Let's do an overview of all of your years at Caltech, the jobs that you had. We'll go through these in detail when we get to the chronology, but I wonder if you can provide a general overview of all the things that you've done.

CUMMINGS: Sure. I started at Caltech in 1971.

ZIERLER: One year before undergraduate women joined Caltech!

CUMMINGS: Correct, absolutely, yes. Harold Brown was president at that time. I was way over on campus at the Public Events Office, where the Ticket Office was located. It was on Michigan Avenue in a little house, but of course now it's gone, which is sad. We'll get into detail about what I did there. I was there until around 1983, and I was lucky enough to get over to the Administration Building, to Parsons-Gates, to work in the President's Office. I worked there about two years and then I transferred across the hall to the Provost's Office. During that time, I kept hearing all this excitement downstairs where the Dean of Students Office was located. This lady that worked there was getting ready to retire. I told her, "Whenever you're ready, please let me know first." Because it just seemed so exciting. That was my lucky break, to get to be working in Student Affairs. I worked there from 1985 until 2012 when I retired.

ZIERLER: Oh, wow.

CUMMINGS: In Student Affairs, I was in the Dean's Office for many, many years, and then I worked directly with the Vice President for Student Affairs.

ZIERLER: You retired in 2012?


ZIERLER: What have you been doing since? What keeps you busy?

CUMMINGS: I had such a wonderful career at Caltech and I wanted to give back, so I do volunteer work with a wonderful organization, the Pasadena Showcase House for the Arts. Their annual all-volunteer fundraiser is the Pasadena Showcase House, which we are in the throes of right now because it opens in April, mid-April to mid-May. It's just an amazing group of men and women. It's all volunteer. The proceeds go to music in the local schools, public schools only, and music and arts, and we give gifts and grants to the L.A. Philharmonic to provide money for these young artists. It has been wonderful. I'm busy with that.

ZIERLER: Let's go all the way back to the beginning. Where did you grow up?

CUMMINGS: I was born in Oklahoma City. I'm a triplet, so I have two sisters. My father got relocated to California and we moved here to Sierra Madre. In 1955, I started kindergarten here in Sierra Madre, in fact just around the corner on Ramona. So—local!

ZIERLER: A real Sierra Madre lifer!

CUMMINGS: Yeah! Sierra Madre Elementary, Wilson Junior High, Pasadena High School, PCC, Cal State LA. Just a total local gal. [laughs]

ZIERLER: Did your sisters stay nearby also?

CUMMINGS: Yes, we were very close. Very close. So, yeah. Luckily when Alan was starting to get his job at Caltech after his PhD, he was offered other positions across the country and my dad goes, "No, no, we don't separate the triplets." [laughs]

ZIERLER: [laughs]

CUMMINGS: Luckily, we stayed at Caltech.

ZIERLER: That's great. Do you remember Oklahoma or you were too young when you moved?

CUMMINGS: Too young, yeah. Born there in 1949. We left there—my dad was transferred a lot because he worked for the Hoover Vacuum Company, in those days. We went to New Orleans for about 18 months, back to Oklahoma, then Texas for a little bit, and then luckily to Southern California. I just remember our time when I moved here, the grade school era.

ZIERLER: Where was the Hoover company in Southern California? Where was the office?

CUMMINGS: It was located in downtown Los Angeles.

ZIERLER: He made the commute?

CUMMINGS: Yes, he did.

ZIERLER: Back then I guess it wasn't as daunting as it is now.

CUMMINGS: Not as many cars on the road! But that didn't last too long because my dad actually went into real estate when we were like in junior high school. He had his own real estate office here in town, in Sierra Madre, and another one in Pasadena.

ZIERLER: Was Sierra Madre fully developed? Was there still open land when you were a kid?

CUMMINGS: There was. In fact, interesting—we lived on Ramona, and we would walk by our house every day to grade school, because we walked, and this was open fields. The north cul-de-sac here, and the south cul-de-sac, were groves of avocados. It was an avocado farm. This beautiful little Victorian home was set way back, and that was the property, but it was all these groves of avocados. When Alan and I got married, my dad being in real estate he luckily found out they were actually going to then parcel out and make these homes here, so we were lucky enough to build our house. It is the only house I've been in—Alan and I celebrated our fiftieth wedding anniversary recently, and we've been in the house 48 years.

ZIERLER: That's amazing. You've remodeled, obviously. [laughs]

CUMMINGS: Yes, we have. [laughs] And added on, yes.

ZIERLER: I'm interested, since you've been here so long, just the broader development. Was the 210 here when you were a kid?

CUMMINGS: No. In fact, when we were growing up, the fun part— my mom would drive us down to Huntington Beach by winding our way down there. We grew up going on weekends to Huntington Beach. But never on a freeway. I don't even think we were on a freeway until junior high school, when the 210 was around. It was all just surface streets around here.

ZIERLER: That must have made it feel less like a small town, when the freeways came in.

CUMMINGS: Yeah, well, but Sierra Madre has always been the same size. It's under 12,000 people, still the same. We have this upper development issue going on in upper Sierra Madre that some people are fighting. Some people want it for extra—let other people enjoy our little town. But I think it's kind of on hold at the moment, actually. But it's pretty much the same.

ZIERLER: Did your mom work outside the house?

CUMMINGS: Nope, never.

ZIERLER: Homemaker.


ZIERLER: An idyllic, suburban, American childhood for you.

CUMMINGS: Pretty much, yeah.

ZIERLER: You mentioned the schools you went to. Sierra Madre was always a good school system?

CUMMINGS: Yes, and it is still again. It really is. It looks the same. It's a beautiful Spanish architecture. Those days we went kindergarten to sixth grade, and then Wilson Junior High was seventh, eighth, and ninth. PHS was tenth, eleventh, and twelfth. It's different now. And they didn't call it middle school; it was junior high school.

ZIERLER: What were your favorite subjects in school?

CUMMINGS: History. I was a history major.

ZIERLER: I love it. That's great.

CUMMINGS: Yeah, love history. Everything. History is everything. So important.

ZIERLER: What about extracurricular activities?

CUMMINGS: Oh, drill team. I mean, you know!

ZIERLER: [laughs]

CUMMINGS: Annette and I were on drill team. Paulette is our fraternal. Annette and I are identical, and Paulette was totally into sports. In fact, she couldn't understand why she couldn't be on the baseball team, but girls weren't allowed during that period. Drill team was our life in high school. It was fabulous.

ZIERLER: A demographic question—when you graduated, was everybody bound for college, or not necessarily?

CUMMINGS: Not in those days, to be honest. Counselors were—some people knew what they wanted to do, they excelled in a certain area, so it was an obvious transition to go to a good college. But being I think also girls, we just—there wasn't that much of a promotion to go to a good college unless you were one of these individuals that knew what you wanted to do.

ZIERLER: What did you want to do? What were your parents' expectations?

CUMMINGS: I thought I wanted to be a teacher, but it just didn't work out. I just got lucky and got a career at Caltech! [laughs]

ZIERLER: You graduated and you went to Caltech right away?

CUMMINGS: No. After college, I worked for American Airlines for a short time.

ZIERLER: You did go to college?

CUMMINGS: Yeah. Actually Paulette ended up being the most professional as far as her career. She was a special ed teacher. She had higher degrees to get that position. She retired I guess probably 10 years ago.

ZIERLER: Where did you go to college?

CUMMINGS: Cal State LA, local. My dad said, "Look, I've got three girls at the same time. You guys are going to have to go local." I wanted to go to Santa Barbara so desperately, but—didn't work out.

ZIERLER: Did you live at home and you commuted, or you lived on campus?

CUMMINGS: We got apartments eventually, but we were pretty much homebodies for a lot of it.

ZIERLER: What year did you start at Cal State LA?

CUMMINGS: Oh, gosh, let's see. High school 1967; PCC 1969. 1969.

ZIERLER: 1969.


ZIERLER: The Vietnam era, civil rights, women's liberation—was any of that happening there?

CUMMINGS: Oh, sure. At high school, mainly. Because 1967—actually, the War—it was mainly at PCC, I guess, that there were people not happy with the War obviously.

ZIERLER: You were aware of protests and marches and things like that.

CUMMINGS: Sure, yeah. That was more like 1968, 1969.

ZIERLER: At Cal State LA, it was a little quieter?

CUMMINGS: I think it was, because I don't recall that being a problem there.

ZIERLER: Maybe it's more of a commuter school.

CUMMINGS: Yes it was, very much a commuter school. There were no dorms or anything.

ZIERLER: Did you stay on with drill team Was there that opportunity there?

CUMMINGS: No, it was just a high school thing. Then at PCC it was hit the books and that was it.

ZIERLER: You went to PCC also?


ZIERLER: Cal State LA and then PCC?

CUMMINGS: No, PCC is a junior college, right nearby campus.

ZIERLER: You started at PCC?


ZIERLER: The idea there is do two years and then go on?

CUMMINGS: Right, and then go on to the other two years.

ZIERLER: Was that a good experience at PCC?

CUMMINGS: Oh, excellent. It's an excellent community college, very much. In those days it was easy to get your prerequisites, but now I think it's harder because it's so popular. The campus just has a large number of students.

ZIERLER: Right downhill, did you know about Caltech? Were you aware of it?

CUMMINGS: It's so interesting—campus was there, and of course we kind of knew that there was that "special" university there, but it just wasn't in my vocabulary, really.

ZIERLER: Yeah, and it's quiet, and it doesn't make a lot of noise.

CUMMINGS: Yeah, it was just kind of its own little thing, and it was much smaller in those days. We didn't have all the other land around the perimeter of the campus. I'd pass it occasionally on California, but really my daily life was to go Del Mar to Hill, and we never really went further south on California Boulevard to see the main part of campus, so I really didn't pay any attention to it.

ZIERLER: What was your major in college?

CUMMINGS: History.

ZIERLER: PCC and Cal State LA?

CUMMINGS: PCC was just general requirements pretty much. Then I just really started to enjoy history.

ZIERLER: Was there one of the big earthquakes when you were at Cal State LA?

CUMMINGS: Oh, yeah.

ZIERLER: Do you remember that?

CUMMINGS: 1971. In fact, it was February 9th, my mom's birthday, early in the morning. Was that the Simi Valley or Northridge earthquake? I don't remember. It was 1971. It was awful. Awful.

ZIERLER: You felt it?

CUMMINGS: Oh, yeah. Really, really bad. But to be honest, the worst earthquake I've ever been through was the Sierra Madre earthquake. We were the epicenter. It was probably in the late 1980s, maybe the early 1990s. A lot of devastation in town. The church steeple made of bricks all fell. It was only like 5.4, but boy, I tell you, when you're the epicenter, that was a whole different thing.

ZIERLER: Cal State LA was a good experience also?

CUMMINGS: Pretty much. To be honest, I really didn't finish. I was really close, but I got antsy. I just wanted to do something else. Then I had an opportunity to get a good job, so—

ZIERLER: You left as a junior?

CUMMINGS: No, closer than that, really.

ZIERLER: Closer than that?

CUMMINGS: Yeah, not too many more requirements to get my degree. It was sad. But I just had had enough.

ZIERLER: Did you ever go back to complete the bachelor's?

CUMMINGS: At one point, I did. I notified the registrar to find out where I could pick up, but it was going to be more classes than where I ended at, because the requirements had changed, so at that point I just was on to something else.

ZIERLER: You were still single at this point? That wasn't a factor?

CUMMINGS: Totally single.

ZIERLER: You just wanted to go out into the workforce?


ZIERLER: Were your parents supportive of that?

CUMMINGS: Yeah, they were. They wanted us to be happy. Paulette was the one that really ended up with the more college degree. Annette worked in a bank. I don't think she went as far. PCC. She got married early, right after Pasadena City College. Annette got married first.

ZIERLER: You went out on the job market. What was available to you?

CUMMINGS: Actually, in town. I worked at Sierra Engineering, but I did that during the summer, like a little part-time job while I was going to school. Then they asked me—I think that was part of it—to stay on full time. I did, and it was all right. I enjoyed it.

ZIERLER: What did you do after that?

CUMMINGS: Then I got an amazing offer to work at American Airlines. They were looking for reservation—downtown in Los Angeles, in the Tishman Building, they had their main reservation office for the phones. There were no real computers in those days. But they had this brand-new ticket system called Sabre, Sabre computing system, tied into the phone lines somehow. So, I was on the phone. "Welcome to American Airlines. Your AstroJet will be departing"—blah blah blah. It was a six-month temporary job. I thought, well, why not? Because I wanted to travel, and I thought maybe that was a good opportunity to do so. In fact, I and a group of young other women, we got to take the first AstroJet 747—

ZIERLER: That's the AstroJet, 747?

CUMMINGS: —yes, that's what they called it—leaving Los Angeles to New York. I had never been to New York before in my life. I was like 20 or 21. Quite the excitement. It was amazing. First class. It was amazing. We stayed a week and came back. It was so we could sell the Jet, so we could sell the reservations.

ZIERLER: This was a six-month appointment?


ZIERLER: What did you do after that?

CUMMINGS: Luckily, I asked my cousin, Carl. I said, "I need to find a job." He worked at Caltech at the time, in the Ticket Office. He said, "I think you're in luck." The young gal in the back office who was working with the audio-visual manager was going to leave because she was expecting a baby. In those days, they only gave you six weeks leave—that was it—so she was not going to come back. He said, "Why don't I ask if you can come in and talk to the manager?" I said, "Great." That was my lucky day, because I got that job.

ZIERLER: Tell me about working in that office. What did they do?

CUMMINGS: The Office of Public Events was in charge of Beckman Auditorium and Ramo Auditorium. In those days, we had big events, not only lectures—the scientific Watson lectures—but they had like dance groups and theater. It was an amazing auditorium of events. Plus, what my cousin was doing was setting up Ticketron ticket system to sell tickets. The Ticket Office sold tickets to Pantages Theatre, Greek Theatre, sporting events, so we were busy all day long in the front of the office, which was the Ticket Office, selling tickets. I worked in the back, but then I eventually helped out in the Ticket Office, too, which was great fun. We would [laughs] come in on a Monday morning and people would be wrapped around Michigan all around the block to buy rock tickets, to the Rose Bowl, to the Dodger stadium, where they had these big rock concerts. It was all on Ticketron.

ZIERLER: This was Caltech doing business for non-Caltech events?

CUMMINGS: Correct. We would sell Ticketron tickets to events in Beckman Auditorium, but we also were an outside agent to sell tickets for theatre and sporting events and rock concerts.

ZIERLER: Did this bring in a non-trivial amount of money for Caltech?

CUMMINGS: We obviously must have had some kind of commission, but I was not aware of it. But we were busy all day long. It was amazing.

ZIERLER: Before the internet, this is the local place you go when you want to buy tickets.

CUMMINGS: Absolutely, absolutely. Plus they had the old mutual ticket system too, which was a voucher system. It would be somebody's time to come up to the counter—"I want to go to x play at the Pantages, and this is the day"—and I would call, and we would write up the voucher and give them the voucher to turn into the box office, and then we kept a copy for audit, our money and all that kind of thing. It was fun.

ZIERLER: What was the demarcation of events that would take place in Beckman versus Ramo?

CUMMINGS: Beckman was almost twice the size, probably larger. Beckman is, what, 1170 seats? Ramo was like 500. Caltech student musicals would be in Ramo and also smaller events. We had all kinds of big functions going on in Beckman Auditorium—I can't remember a lot of them—like a flamenco dance group, or—but we would pretty much fill the auditorium.

ZIERLER: Who was responsible for the artistic direction of all of these events? Who made those decisions?

CUMMINGS: The Public Events manager. I wonder if we had a faculty advisor. I'm not really sure about that.

ZIERLER: It's such a fascinating mismatch of this heavy science and engineering school—

CUMMINGS: Oh, I know. I know!

ZIERLER: —that did all of these artistic and dramatic events.

CUMMINGS: I know. Funny, because the Humanities and Social Science building was right next to Beckman Auditorium, and I used to think, maybe that's why we have this [laughs] on campus. Because it's a lighter version of the academia part, right?

ZIERLER: Who would you interact with among Caltech students, staff, and faculty? Who were the key people that you worked with?

CUMMINGS: The students, because we hired the students to be ushers in the auditorium for our events. I got to really get friendly with quite a few of the students. It was fun.

ZIERLER: What were their motivations? This killer Caltech curriculum that's so intense, why would they take time out of their studies while they're there to do these things? What would they say?

CUMMINGS: In those days, if I can remember correctly, some students needed to work to help out with their tuition or something, so there was a work-study program kind of thing. They fulfilled that by working probably in the cafeteria, bookstore, or other places, but they worked in the Ticket Office. Just a few hours a day, because they had to keep up with their book work, obviously. I wish I could remember what it was. It was some kind of a student program. We hired them on that basis.

ZIERLER: You said in 1971, one year after women arrived—obviously you didn't have anything to compare it to, but did you notice how new it was for Caltech to be coed?

CUMMINGS: Oh, I did. That was when we jump to the time in the Dean of Students Office. Then I was really aware of it, because when the freshman class was just—we were thrilled that we got 24 women.

ZIERLER: [laughs]

CUMMINGS: Over the years, obviously, we've done a lot better with that. Yes, that's when it became just crystal clear to me—"Wow!"

ZIERLER: Did you ever get involved in anything on the stage itself? Did you ever perform?

CUMMINGS: Oh, absolutely! [laughs] In fact, once I got into the Deans' Office, I was recruited to work in the annual student musical, so I was in Bye Bye Birdie and a couple others. They were the little walk-on parts. It made it a really homegrown, fun, campus experience, to recruit not only the students but faculty and staff.

ZIERLER: Now the chronology—how long are you in the Ticket Office for?

CUMMINGS: 1971 until I went across to the President's Office in 1983.

ZIERLER: 1971 to 1983. In 1983, Tom Everhart is president.

CUMMINGS: No, Goldberger. Marvin Goldberger.

ZIERLER: Oh, right, Murph!

CUMMINGS: Yes, Murph. Yeah, the Murph days! [laughs]

ZIERLER: That's right. Tom comes in a few years later.

CUMMINGS: Correct.

ZIERLER: What were the circumstances of you going over to the President's Office?

CUMMINGS: I got married in 1973 and—

ZIERLER: Oh, we can't skip over that. Where did you meet Alan?

CUMMINGS: That was the starting point of my whole life besides getting the job at Caltech. I met Alan because—in I guess it was around 1973, I had been dating somebody since high school days. He decided to take another path, and so I said, okay, well—I wanted to—I thought, you know, I think I would like to take tennis lessons, meet some nice people, they go to nice clubs. This gal in the back office, an older lady—of course, she was probably young, but she was older to me—funny Irish lady named Kitty. I asked her one day, "Do you know anybody who I could possibly take tennis lessons from?" She said, "Oh my gosh." She used to work in the Physics building where Alan worked. "I know just the guy for you. His name is Alan Cummings. He's the best tennis player on campus. He plays with the President, Harold Brown."


CUMMINGS: "He is phenomenal." I went, "Oh, okay. If you don't mind, could you ask him if he'd be interested and we can meet up for lessons or something?" Of course, she ran into him at the Caltech Bookstore not too long after. She told him all the things, and she said "you need to come over to the Ticket Office and rent some audio visual equipment and you'll meet Suzette because she rents it out.", Well, evidently this was a problem for Alan because he didn't want to put the cost of the equipment on Caltech. He had discussions during his lunchtime with his colleagues about going to meet this lady over in the Ticket Office, and he was nervous to do it. So, I don't know, I—

ZIERLER: [laughs]

CUMMINGS: —he just never did. But then, on my birthday, March 14th, Pi Day, I was across the campus to pick up the paychecks—and in those days, they were paychecks; there was no direct deposit. I had to pick them up at the cashier where the mail office is located, in Business Services. So, I went over to pick up the paychecks. Unbeknownst to me, Alan was coming in the door to take his thesis to have it printed in Graphic Arts, down in the basement.

ZIERLER: Oh, so he was still a grad student then!

CUMMINGS: Yes. That was March 14th and he was getting ready for his oral exam for his PhD within like a week. I didn't know that, of course. So, I was getting the checks, and then I went downstairs to Graphic Arts, and I guess I must have smiled at him on the stairs. So, I was going down, he was coming up from Graphic Arts, and I smiled at him. So, he thought, from the description, that maybe I might be—Suzette. I went back to the cashier to talk to the mail guy about something, and Alan said he read every announcement on the lobby bulletin board, and he met me at the door to hold the door open for me, and said, "By chance, are you Suzette Yeats?" I said, "Yes, I am." He said, "I'm Alan Cummings. We were supposed to meet for tennis." I was kind of in a hurry to get back—everybody wanted their paychecks, right? — so I said, "Come to the ticket office, and maybe we can talk later today." He said, "Great, I'll come over this afternoon."

He did come over. I was in a back office. We always kept the back door open to the Ticket Office. I guess there was somebody else sitting at my desk but my nameplate was there. He peeked in, and he didn't think the lady sitting there looked like who he thought it was, and so he peeked in and he said, "By chance are you Suzette?" The girl—I don't remember now who it was, but I do remember she said, "Does it look like it?" [laughs]. Anyway, I showed up, and we decided to meet the next day. This was a Friday; paychecks were on Friday. He said, "I'm actually going to be playing in a tournament with my good buddy Bernie at Pasadena City College tomorrow morning. Why don't you come to the tennis match and we'll hit some balls and we'll have a lesson after?" I said, "Great!" We got that arranged. I thought, "Oh my gosh, I don't even have a tennis outfit." I had to spend my entire paycheck [laughs] on a tennis outfit! I went right by Big 5 on the way home, I think, to buy all that. Anyway, we met up.

ZIERLER: You're still living at home at this point?

CUMMINGS: No, no, I was living with Paulette, actually, in an apartment on Rosemead Blvd. Annette was married. Paulette was getting ready to get married in August, and so I was living with her for a while. I met Alan, I watched his match, but I mainly visited with Bernie's wife, because she had a little baby, and I didn't pay a lick of attention [laughs] to Alan and Bernie. They lost the match and they weren't too happy anyway. I think Alan took me to Big Boy to have root beers or something. It was still there on Colorado. Big Boy hamburger place. We had a few dates and we got married in October.

ZIERLER: It was pretty quick from—

CUMMINGS: Very quick.

ZIERLER: —tennis instructor to boyfriend to husband?

CUMMINGS: Absolutely, absolutely.

ZIERLER: That's a dangerous smile right down the stairway!

CUMMINGS: [laughs]

ZIERLER: Look what could happen!

CUMMINGS: Evidently! Yeah. I've forgotten now what the original question was, but—

ZIERLER: That's the meander we were talking about.

CUMMINGS: Okay, that was the meandering.

ZIERLER: Did meeting Alan plug you into the science of Caltech in a way that you didn't have a window before?

CUMMINGS: Very good question. Yes. While I was in the President's Office, though—I guess I'll go back a little—I worked there a couple of years. The Provost at the time was Robbie Vogt, who was Alan's thesis advisor. He asked me if I would be interested to be his assistant, as his faculty appointment to be Provost. I said yes. Of course, Alan was shocked, because Alan was so afraid of Robbie Vogt [laughs]. But I just thought he was amazing. I did go to work for Robbie Vogt for a couple years. The experience in the Provost's Office was amazing to me, because I got to really be introduced to how the faculty appointments worked at Caltech and that whole science faculty part of the campus. That was a wonderful education.

ZIERLER: Where was Alan's office in the early years?

CUMMINGS: He was over in Downs at the time. Many years later he moved to Cahill.

ZIERLER: Before 1977, did you ever get to meet Harold Brown?

CUMMINGS: No, because when I started in 1971, he was pretty much getting ready to retire. Or, he was actually moving on to work in the Carter administration, so he was on his way to work in D.C.

ZIERLER: How did the opportunity come up to work in the President's Office? Is there an ad? Is it word of mouth? How does that work?

CUMMINGS: It worked out because I—again, Caltech only gave you six weeks, so when I was pregnant in 1975, Alan and I decided I would just stay at home for a while. I couldn't make that decision to go back in six weeks. That was just a crazy thing. So, I was home for a time. But then I really missed working on campus. Luckily, the Ticket Office hired me back on a part-time basis. It really did work out very nicely. After a few years, I had the opportunity to work in the President's Office. Again, it was still like three-quarter time, so I could drop our son off at daycare and then pick him up, so it worked out really well. Then I wanted to work full time when I got to the Provost's Office.

ZIERLER: How had you heard about the job at the President's Office?

CUMMINGS: Caltech was just amazing about doing their job postings, and they had this feeling they really wanted to promote within. So, it was easy to transfer to get other experiences, which I was just so grateful for. Going back to the Ticket Office, because my cousin gave me that opportunity by telling me about that job, I never filled out an application; I just started working. Then when I saw the job posted again over at Parsons-Gates, I think I had to fill out paperwork but then it was the transfer paperwork. I had that opportunity because Robbie Vogt asked me if I'd be willing to transfer, which was great. Then I heard the activity in the Dean's Office downstairs in that building, so I just asked this lady one day, "If you ever retire, please let me know, because it sounds like you have an amazing job." She said, "It is the best job on campus, working with the students." And it was. It was my life. I loved it.

ZIERLER: I want to go back—this amazing insistence from your dad that you weren't headed anywhere for Alan's career, did he work hard to get his position? This idea that he is working as a research scientist on soft money for 50 years is just incredible. You don't hear anything like that.


ZIERLER: Did he work something out special to be able to stay at Caltech with some level of assurance that this could be a long-term career but not on the faculty?


ZIERLER: How did you and Alan work that out?

CUMMINGS: It worked out because Alan was lucky that Voyager was just starting, so instead of going the postdoc route, which he didn't want to do—he was really interested in research—

ZIERLER: Being a professor wasn't necessarily something that he foreclosed on himself?

CUMMINGS: That really wasn't his interest at all. Luckily, he didn't have to leave campus. They made him a professional staff member, a scientist at Caltech, a member of the professional staff. It was just lucky. Luck.

ZIERLER: When you got married, that's when you moved here? Or moved back here, I should say.


ZIERLER: Where were your parents at that point?

CUMMINGS: My dad being in real estate—the year we got married—moving out of Sierra Madre, they moved down to Laguna Niguel. In those days it was just land, and my dad was on the cutting edge of these homes and developments being built, developing Laguna Niguel. He was really lucky. He bought lots of property and that's where they stayed until they passed away.

ZIERLER: Wow. That was a wonderful transition back to the house.

CUMMINGS: Wonderful transition, yeah.

ZIERLER: In the President's Office, what was your title? Was it executive assistant?

CUMMINGS: No. There was an executive assistant, so I was her assistant. Mary Webster was there, and she was Board of Trustees secretary, to the board.

ZIERLER: Mary was not your boss?

CUMMINGS: No. Well, she was the manager of the entire office, so in essence, yes, she was. But I think I reported directly to the executive assistant in those days.

ZIERLER: What was the division of labor? What did you do? What did the executive assistant do?

CUMMINGS: I helped out with filing, and I answered the phones, and with the calendar, and making sure that supplies were ordered. It was kind of simple, but it was perfect. It was fine. I learned a lot.

ZIERLER: Did you get to interact with Murph at all?


ZIERLER: What was he like?

CUMMINGS: Interesting. [laughs]

ZIERLER: He's a theoretical physicist, so that's always going to be interesting.

CUMMINGS: That's always going to be interesting.

ZIERLER: Although you're married to a physicist, so you knew your way around.

CUMMINGS: Yeah. Murph had a great sense of humor. Interesting, because Robbie Vogt [laughs] always called him "That Hollywood Guy," because he had kind of a lot of connections in Hollywood.


CUMMINGS: Donors, I'm sure, what we're talking about here. If I'm remembering correctly. I always thought that was amusing, because I never saw any Hollywood types come to campus for a meeting or anything. But it was just kind of a funny. I think he had really interesting connections. Donors.

ZIERLER: Murph was already president when you came into the President's Office?

CUMMINGS: Yes. Then when I went to the Provost's Office, he was still president. I was in the building when Tom Everhart came, but I never worked with him.

ZIERLER: Robbie was provost the whole time you were at the—?

CUMMINGS: Just for two years.

ZIERLER: At the beginning or at the end?

CUMMINGS: I was in the President's Office 1983 to about 1985. Then 1985 to 1987 I was with Robbie in the Provost's Office. Then he left and Barclay Kamb became provost.

ZIERLER: Who was provost before Robbie? Or that would have been before your time? You were still in the Ticket Office at that point.

CUMMINGS: No, I was working in the President's Office before Robbie became Provost. And the Provost before Robbie was John D. Roberts, Professor of Chemistry.

ZIERLER: This is something you might have insight and you might not—I'm fascinated—Murph came, he was a professor of physics at Princeton, and as far as I know, that was the extent of his administrative responsibilities. He wasn't a department chair, a dean, or a provost. So this is sort of a meteoric leap from being a professor to being the president of Caltech. Did you have any insight or did you see how he grew into that role?

CUMMINGS: No. It was just sort of different in those days. The President's Office became much more vibrant than it was then. I was actually, to be honest, bored working there.

ZIERLER: It was a quiet place?

CUMMINGS: Very. You could hear a pin drop. Very few things happening. They were on the cutting edge of—in fact, funny story—I started working in the President's Office on January 2, 1983, and I'm sitting there right at 8:00—that was my first day on the job. I was already intimidated—"My gosh, I'm going to the Administration Building working in the President's Office." I'm coming from a very loud environment working in the ticket office. I'm sitting there. Nobody else had arrived quite yet, so I waited outside, and the custodian let me in. I didn't know where to sit, so I just sat at the front desk, right up front, right outside—which became—that was Murph Goldberger's office. I didn't know! So, I just sat there, waiting for something to happen. I opened up the door, and in walks this gentleman, all dressed up, this older gentleman. He said, "Good morning!" I said, "Good morning!" He said, "Here, would you please hand this off to Murph?" I said, "Oh, I'd be happy to. I'll make sure Dr. Goldberger gets this." And he goes, "Well, you have a nice day!" It was a check. And I can't even begin to tell you how many zeroes were on that check! [laughs]

ZIERLER: [laughs]

CUMMINGS: But I believe it was a check toward the Keck Telescope—

ZIERLER: Oh, wow.

CUMMINGS: —it ended up being. I thought, wow, this is a great job. You sit here and people bring money! [laughs]

ZIERLER: [laughs]

CUMMINGS: Anyway, that was just a funny thing. But yeah, other than that, it was pretty quiet.

ZIERLER: A quiet place. He didn't have meetings all the time coming in and out?

CUMMINGS: There were meetings going on and all, but it just didn't seem—like it ended up being. When I was over in the Provost's Office, things really pepped up. There were a lot of faculty in and out, and meetings were going on. It just seemed different.

ZIERLER: Did you have a window into Murph's priorities for Caltech, some of the big initiatives that he wanted to do as president?

CUMMINGS: No, honestly I don't.

ZIERLER: From your own vantage point, what were some of the big, exciting things that were happening on campus—construction, big research projects? What do you remember from those days?

CUMMINGS: Keck was huge, and—gosh, it's way back. I can't remember, David. I'll have to think about that and get back to you.

ZIERLER: It might just be that Murph's style as a leader was, "Don't rock the boat."

CUMMINGS: Yeah, kind of, you know? He was a funny guy.

ZIERLER: How long were you in the President's Office?

CUMMINGS: Just two years. Then I went over to Provost, a couple of years.

ZIERLER: Same kind of thing? Word of mouth?


ZIERLER: Did you see that as a lateral move? Was it a promotion?

CUMMINGS: It was a promotion, because then I was the assistant to the provost. I just learned so much about faculty appointments, the paperwork involved, lots of faculty coming in to meet with Robbie about their appointments and that kind of thing.

ZIERLER: What was the dynamic between Murph and Robbie?

CUMMINGS: It seemed—interesting.

ZIERLER: Interesting.


ZIERLER: Tense at times, maybe?


ZIERLER: Different personalities?

CUMMINGS: It really felt like there were some issues, yeah. They didn't quite see eye to eye on things.

ZIERLER: Robbie has a very strong personality.

CUMMINGS: Very strong personality.

ZIERLER: But you weren't intimidated by him?

CUMMINGS: Nope, not at all.

ZIERLER: Even though Alan was scared of him?

CUMMINGS: Totally intimidated by him. But Robbie—

ZIERLER: What was the idea, that he was like this Teutonic eminent scientist?

CUMMINGS: Oh, Alan just so looked up to him. Which I can totally understand, but I was on a different level. Robbie to me took great pride in being a good instructor. He had a certain style. He would like listen around the doorjamb how I was talking to a faculty member on the phone, to make an appointment or something, and then he would kind of critique, in a very wonderful and instructional way. Or, he had a different style about how he wanted letters to be done or something. I just thought it was a great experience, to learn from this wonderful man. Plus, I was able to be one of the few people on campus that could read his handwriting. He had this European style, and I figured out if you tilted the paper a little bit, the loops made sense—

ZIERLER: [laughs]

CUMMINGS: —and so I could figure out how to transcribe his writing! [laughs] I became invaluable for that. [laughs] It was funny.

ZIERLER: What did you learn about how Caltech operates academically in the Provost's Office that you wouldn't see in the President's Office, given what the provost is charged to do?

CUMMINGS: That was the faculty appointments. That was their thing. They were in charge of faculty appointments, and the paperwork, and getting involved with visiting faculty. We'd have to work with the housing office and other offices to coordinate. That was just so different.

ZIERLER: During those days, was there any talk about hiring more women faculty members? Do you ever recall that being something that was discussed?

CUMMINGS: That is a really good question. It might have been, but everything was so private. Robbie would have his meetings with the division chairs, weekly meetings, and I'm sure all of this was high-level discussions about campus and hiring more women faculty, but it really never filtered down to my level.

ZIERLER: What was a regular schedule for Robbie? What was a day in the week for Robbie?

CUMMINGS: Meetings, pretty much. Of course he was over in Physics, too. This was a faculty appointment, so it was split time, and he wasn't always in the Provost's Office. He would be over there for meetings pertaining to faculty appointments or other issues, but he also did a lot of work over in his other office.

ZIERLER: He kept up research during the provost years?

CUMMINGS: Absolutely.

ZIERLER: When he wasn't there, you were running the operation?

CUMMINGS: There was a higher-level administrator lady too that was in charge, that I reported to as well.

ZIERLER: The Provost's Office was a little more exciting, it sounds like?

CUMMINGS: It was a lot more exciting. Then when Robbie decided—there was some reason that he stepped down early. Then Barclay Kamb became the provost, and he brought his staff with him, so they didn't know what to do with me. Because I needed to have something. They didn't want to fire me, thankfully. Luckily, they restarted the Fairchild Scholars program for visiting faculty, so I got trained real quick on how to handle that, and it was just wonderful. Faculty that were appointed to be a Fairchild Scholar from all over, I would check them in with their appointment, give them their packet of information, help to get their housing assignment, and that kind of thing. I really enjoyed that. In fact, one day I came home and Alan goes, "How was your day?" I said, "Oh, good. I checked in a really interesting old gentleman. He was in his eighties." I said, "He was so sweet and he was just so nice! Hans Bethe." And Alan goes, "What? He's in the dictionary!" [laughs]

ZIERLER: [laughs]

CUMMINGS: But that's the kind of caliber of people that come to Caltech, so—

ZIERLER: Do you remember when Robbie was involved in LIGO? Do you remember his involvement or any of that work?

CUMMINGS: Not really.

ZIERLER: That's all high-level stuff.

CUMMINGS: Yeah. I know he was busy with that, but—

ZIERLER: Was it Murph who appointed Barclay Kamb, or was that Tom Everhart at that point? What was the timing there?

CUMMINGS: I believe it was still Murph. Yeah, I think it was still Goldberger.

ZIERLER: Barclay came from division chair of GPS?

CUMMINGS: Correct.

ZIERLER: That's why he had a whole staff already with him.

CUMMINGS: Yeah, I'm pretty definite it was Goldberger. There were issues there, with he and Robbie, so yeah.

ZIERLER: As you said, there's going to be someplace else for you to go at that point. What were your options? What were you looking at?

CUMMINGS: Luckily, I was able just to move two offices down in the Provost area, because they were in charge of this Fairchild Scholar program.

ZIERLER: This is still the second floor?

CUMMINGS: Yes, still the second floor. From there, going up and down the stairs all the time, the Dean of Students office was still—that was on the first level there. The Vice President for Student Affairs was across the hall, and the Registrar's Office was there on the first floor as well, so there was a lot of student activity in Parsons-Gates in those days.

ZIERLER: I'm on the first floor of Parsons-Gates, so I just want to map this out. The first floor, when you walk in the front of the building, that's the Vice President for Student Affairs.

CUMMINGS: Yes, that's where the Vice President for Student Affairs' office is still located. But it used to be the Dean of Students office. Then across the hall, all along was the Registrar's Office. That whole long series of offices now was entirely the Registrar's area.

ZIERLER: If you're entering the building, that's to the right or the left?

CUMMINGS: To the left. You go up those front main stairs, and to the left was the Registrar's Office. To the right was General Counsel.

ZIERLER: Counsel was still there, and to the left is now—was there a break room there? Because there's a break room there now.

CUMMINGS: I think they might have had a little office, but it was just the Registrar and a long counter, so that students could do their business.

ZIERLER: That's amazing to me. [laughs]

CUMMINGS: You can imagine the noise! Days for student registration, add days, and drop days, we would have lots of students in the building.

ZIERLER: This is all happening one floor away from the President's and the Provost's Office.

CUMMINGS: Totally, downstairs. I think they probably had their fill of it, because students would be lined up out the door on registration day to take care of business. It was just so much fun!

ZIERLER: You had your eye on working in the Dean of Students office just because it was exciting, and it's working with the students?

CUMMINGS: It was. And I was lucky, I had that Fairchild Scholar program, but it was just a program and it wasn't going to last forever. They had brought it back.

ZIERLER: What were your responsibilities for the Fairchild?

CUMMINGS: Just the check-in with the visiting faculty. But anyway, like I said, there was just so much activity going on downstairs. So, I asked Penny, the administrative assistant at the front desk in the Deans' Office, "If you ever think about retiring, would you let me know?" She said, "I sure will, because I have the best job on campus!" It looked like it! Luckily, I was hired to work in the Deans' Office in 1985.

ZIERLER: You were two years in the President's Office—

CUMMINGS: Yeah, or it was—

ZIERLER: No, it couldn't have been 1985, then.


ZIERLER: 1987. So, two years in the President's Office, two years with Robbie in the Provost's Office—

CUMMINGS: —and then Dean of Students.

ZIERLER: Who was Dean of Students in 1987?

CUMMINGS: Gary Lorden, Professor of Math. Again, they're all faculty appointments.

ZIERLER: Sadly, we lost Gary.

CUMMINGS: Yes. We were still dear friends with Gary and his family.

ZIERLER: Tell me about Gary. What was he like?

CUMMINGS: Oh my gosh, full of personality! Fun. Statistics guy. So much fun. I remember we would buy a lottery ticket—"Well, you're not going to win!" I said, "Gary, somebody wins!" He goes, "Well, it's not going to be you!"

ZIERLER: [laughs]

CUMMINGS: He was just so much fun, yeah. Loved him.

ZIERLER: Was this also a lateral move? Were you executive assistant to Gary?

CUMMINGS: Yes, I was the assistant to the Dean of Students. It was a promotion, definitely.

ZIERLER: Now the excitement is building, from president to provost to—

CUMMINGS: To Dean of Students Office, yes.

ZIERLER: Now you're at the Dean of Students office. What were the issues? What were the kinds of things that would occupy Gary's time as Dean of Students?

CUMMINGS: Oh, gosh, well, a lot of student issues. They would come in all the time for appointments. These were the days we had no computerized system. It was before PCs, so the calendar was on my desk and we were constantly writing with a pencil, erasing appointments, filling in appointments. No cell phones. Calling up, trying to reach a student. I mean, no email. I would spend a lot of my days walking over to Ruddock or Fleming or Page House to scotch-tape a note on the door or a whiteboard to have X student please call Suzette in the Dean's Office. It was quite busy! [laughs]

ZIERLER: Was the Dean of Students everything before the issue raised to the Vice President for Student Affairs? Is that how that worked?

CUMMINGS: Yes. Student issues could be resolved in the Dean of Students Office. If not, it could rise to the Vice President for Student Affairs. That could be an honor code violation type of example.

ZIERLER: Who was VP for Student Affairs during those days?

CUMMINGS: Oh, gosh. During Gary's time, who was the vice president?

ZIERLER: Chris Brennen, maybe?

CUMMINGS: No, no. Chris was the next dean I worked with. I worked with four deans. There was Gary, then Chris Brennen, then Rod Kiewiet, and Jean-Paul Revel. So, I had a mathematician, a mechanical engineer, social scientist, and biology!

ZIERLER: [laughs] A full tour!

CUMMINGS: They all had different personalities, and just wonderful, absolutely wonderful. These are full-time faculty members; to take these positions was amazing, out of their busy day.

ZIERLER: Caltech is so small, there are so few undergraduates, it's so difficult to get in. How does that translate to how Caltech treats each student as such a precious resource when they're having problems? What does that look like from your perspective?

CUMMINGS: It's like a family. I mean just so one on one. It's just absolutely amazing. These students are just from everywhere, and so many interesting students, that this is their home, and we treat it as such. Really it was like a real family atmosphere. It truly, truly was.

ZIERLER: What were the kinds of issues that students would come in on their own accord, and what were issues where it was either a resident advisor or a professor who said, "You need to keep your eyes on so and so"? What did each of those look like?

CUMMINGS: I just really feel like the Dean's Office was very inviting. The doors were always open. We'd always have soda and cookies. Students would just wander in, because maybe they had been across the hall in the Registrar's Office, and they just wanted to sit down on the couch and say, "Hi." Or they would come in and say, "Suzette, my mom and dad are going to come visit. Do you have a recommendation on a motel or hotel that they could stay in?" Or they just felt like they wanted to talk to somebody. It wasn't necessarily the dean; they just wanted to, you know, talk to a friend.

ZIERLER: A lot of the time, you were just a friendly face.

CUMMINGS: Totally, yeah.

ZIERLER: With plenty of local knowledge, being from here. You really had good ideas about what to do and things like that.

CUMMINGS: Yeah, and it was just so rewarding. It really was. Of course we had very serious interactions with students, too. They are under amazing stress. Some handled it better than others. Again, they're far away from their family. We had to deal with some very serious issues. There was a period of time when I worked in the Dean's Office that we had a rash of suicides. It was not an easy time. Not an easy time.

ZIERLER: There were probably fewer professional counseling type opportunities.

CUMMINGS: Yes, in the early days, that is so true. But they really did a much better job, because it cried out for that. Yeah, there were some trying times.

ZIERLER: The transition from Gary to Chris, what was that like?

CUMMINGS: Great. Chris was also wonderful. A little more—

ZIERLER: A Northern Irish gentleman.

CUMMINGS: Yes, exactly. A little more—

ZIERLER: Patrician?

CUMMINGS: Yeah, and had this professional air. Not that Gary wasn't, but Gary made it fun, even in the sad times. During Gary's time, actually, I felt lucky because we didn't have too many serious issues that came up. More during later-on years. During Chris's time, yeah, there were serious things. But Chris was wonderful to work with, absolutely.

ZIERLER: What about drug use on campus? Was that an issue? Was that something that the Dean of Students had to deal with?

CUMMINGS: Yes, yes.

ZIERLER: How would Caltech deal with those things?

CUMMINGS: Well, in fact that's when they were writing up drug policies, like how to handle that kind of thing. Counseling was involved. Yeah, it was serious.

ZIERLER: How did you work with each of the houses? What's your point of contact with the houses?

CUMMINGS: The Resident Associates. The RA was our point person. They were typically graduate students. To get a hold of them was a little easier, and they would help if we needed to get in touch with a student for a particular reason. They would help out with their wellbeing or whatever issues they were having to help counsel and get into the deans or counseling center. They were very important.

ZIERLER: Did you get a sense of each of the different characteristics of the houses? Was there like a "this house is known for this" and "this house is known for this"?

CUMMINGS: Totally. Oh, yes.

ZIERLER: What were some of the stereotypes or characteristics of each house?

CUMMINGS: The Fleming House, they called themselves like the athletic ones, the jock house. Ricketts was more the student leader house, actually. We had quite a few ASCIT presidents, the student body president, and the honor code—the board of control chair were typically from Ricketts. Page House were like the pageboys; they were kind of egotistical types? I don't know what you say, but—and the Darbs, Dabney was a little like the hippie types. They all had their characters. And they were so wonderful. They would invite the deans to come and have dinner, and I was invited quite a bit to have dinner in the student houses. It was really wonderful.

ZIERLER: The women students, did they cluster in a particular house, or were they pretty well distributed?

CUMMINGS: I think they were distributed. They probably did that for a reason, or whatever their comfort was. They got to pick. But in those days, oh my gosh, like I said, there were probably 16 total women when I first started in the Dean's Office. Gradually we were a little bit better, but oh my gosh. Yeah, they had their own particular issues to deal with.

ZIERLER: Of course. Nowadays women make up just about 50 percent of the student body.

CUMMINGS: Yes! It's amazing! We're so proud!

ZIERLER: It's amazing, I know! It's especially amazing because I think there were 33 women in the inaugural class of 1970. Then, as you mentioned, these numbers went down, so it was not a pure incline.


ZIERLER: When did you start to realize that the student body was on that trajectory? It probably wouldn't have been at 50% even when you retired—


ZIERLER: —but when did it feel like it was not a miniscule or even a novel amount of women undergrads? When did that transition feel like it happened?

CUMMINGS: Oh gosh, it was probably in the 1990s, when they really made an effort with admissions and outreach, and just women in general. I think nationwide, too, women were really getting into science more. We were really recruiting, a strong recruitment, to get our women population up.

ZIERLER: Did you have any interaction with Tom Everhart? I'm trying to keep the chapters with each of the presidents.

CUMMINGS: Yes. Of course I was in the building, so I would see him, and we would be invited to functions in Parsons-Gates. We'd go to the President's House for holiday functions and that kind of thing. He was always this tall figure, and booming voice, but always—fun. He had a really interesting personality, very outgoing. Very involved with the students.

ZIERLER: After Chris, who was Dean of Students?

CUMMINGS: After Chris, it was Rod Kiewit, social sciences.

ZIERLER: Tell me about Rod.

CUMMINGS: Rod was kind of a funny guy. He relied on me to have his little appointment card in his pocket every day so he would know what were his appointments. Rod was funny. He was interesting.

ZIERLER: After Rod?

CUMMINGS: Jean Paul Revel. By then, we were leaving Parsons-Gates. That was around 2001. We moved over to Holliston. They had decided that Student Affairs offices should be all in one area to make it easier for the students to go to the Registrar, Career Development, Financial Aid. Everybody be housed together. They rehabbed an old graduate student building and it became a Student Affairs area.

ZIERLER: In 2001, what was September 11th like on campus? How did students deal with that?

CUMMINGS: We were still in Parsons-Gates. We were just getting ready to move over to Holliston. That's so interesting, because Chris Brennen was the Vice President for Student Affairs at that point, I remember. Who was the dean in 2001? Oh, the Dean was Jean-Paul Revel. That morning was horrendous. Alan and I both felt like after we got the shock worn off that we needed to go to campus, we had to go to campus, because I was worried about the students. It wasn't necessarily my responsibility, but I knew that—what were we going to do, and not—? Anyway, we went. There was really very little ways to get a hold of the student body. They had these general notifications that would go out, but in those days it was done through Graphic Arts, and they decided not to come to work. Understandably, but we had no way to reach the students. So, everybody had to just really get together and help the students. I know we eventually went home for the day, but we had to make sure the students, as a group, were going to be all right. It was—unbelievable.

ZIERLER: Yeah. Particularly the international students, who probably felt—

CUMMINGS: Totally.

ZIERLER: —isolated, and scared, and what happens now.

CUMMINGS: Yeah. We were just beginning to get students back, so it wasn't like full force students on campus because classes hadn't started yet. That was a blessing. But we still had quite a few students there, and of course graduate students were there.

ZIERLER: Tell me about Jean Paul.

CUMMINGS: Wonderful French man. He was an artist, beautiful watercolors that he would do. He was just so kindhearted. Wonderful man. I was very lucky; I had wonderful deans.

ZIERLER: You retired with him, in 2012? He was the last—?

CUMMINGS: No, after that, John Hall was the dean. Then in 2002, Caltech hired our first professional Vice President for Student Affairs. They decided to go different than the faculty appointment. They decided we needed a professional. They hired a woman, Margo Marshak. She asked me if I would go back to Parsons-Gates to work directly with her. Still today the Vice President of Student Affairs is in Parsons-Gates. I worked then for the Vice President for Student Affairs. She was there for about four years. Then John Hall was the interim for about a year. Then I worked with Anneila Sargent, Professor of Astronomy, for approximately four years, until I retired.

ZIERLER: Because you were in the Dean of Students Office for so long, did you feel like you grew in that role? Even if the title didn't change, did you take on more responsibilities? Did successive Deans of Students lean on you because you had experience in this role over the years?

CUMMINGS: I feel so, yeah. Really could run the office, and help as much as I could to take the load off the dean. We had an associate dean, too, Barbara Green, who was instrumental. But I felt like they had confidence in me that I could help in other ways.

ZIERLER: What was the division of labor with Barbara? What were the kinds of issues that she handled, coming in as a professional, not a faculty appointment?

CUMMINGS: Right. She was there really full-time. Again being that the dean was a faculty member, they were gone a lot—teaching, or traveling, or doing other faculty duties. I was full time with Barbara. She was there all the time, so that was great. So, appointments—she was meeting with students all day long. Wonderful. I loved working with Barbara.

ZIERLER: A difficult question. You alluded to it—the tragedy when a student takes their own life—again, it's a small campus, and it feels like a family—how does Caltech institutionally deal with such a horrible thing?

CUMMINGS: Oh, gosh. That's a difficult question. The deans and the vice president would have to interact with the parents. Sometimes we'd have them come out, to fly out to meet with them physically, and to deal with their loved one, their child. Yeah. It was rough. Rough on the deans.

ZIERLER: How does Caltech look inside of itself to figure out, how do we prevent this from happening? What can you do? Are there warning signs that you're aware of? Do you bring in professional counselors at some point? Is it sometimes really scary because there's no warning signs and it's just a horrible surprise? How does Caltech deal with all of those things?

CUMMINGS: Of course, I've been gone for 12 years, but I really feel like they've done a really good job with the RAs paying closer attention. I think educating the classmates—they talk to their peer groups—and just open communication. We have a really vital counseling center too, and a lot more staff members over there to assist.

ZIERLER: That has become more professionalized over the years.

CUMMINGS: Absolutely. And just educating the signs to look for. All of it. I think we've done a better job, from what I can hear.

ZIERLER: A much happier question—student successes. When they win awards, when they do big important research, how is the Dean of Students there to help celebrate and recognize what they've done?

CUMMINGS: Oh, it was great, because actually the Dean's Office was in charge—and I helped with that—awarding these different prizes. We would have certificates printed. Some of them were presented at commencement so their family members could see them getting these great awards. And prizes—a monetary amount would come with it. We were very involved in that, and I helped out with that. It was really fun.

ZIERLER: On the topic of awards, when a Nobel Prize is given to a Caltech faculty member, you were there to witness some of that?

CUMMINGS: Oh, yes!

ZIERLER: What was that day like?

CUMMINGS: Oh my gosh, it was a campus celebration! Yeah! Really!

ZIERLER: A big party.

CUMMINGS: It was great. A whole campus celebration. Yes, very big party. It was wonderful. Wonderful. In fact during Chris Brennen's tenure—this is a little bit different—the one and only time a President of the United States was the commencement speaker, George Bush, Sr. That was a big day on campus. I was actually on a little committee to help with organizing how the students, everybody would go across to the athletic field, to go through the metal detectors, how it all worked out. It was quite exciting. That was fun.

ZIERLER: Let's go back to the chronology with Margo. She came to you and said, "Would you come work with me?"

CUMMINGS: Yes, she did. She temporarily worked in one of the offices over in the Student Affairs building, so I was there, already, still in the Dean of Students area. We became friendly. They were trying to figure out her staff, because she was originally going to stay in the building so we would just all support her. But then David Baltimore decided that he felt the vice presidents should all be in Parsons-Gates. To make it the Administration Building, that's where she should be. I was of course like, "Oh, yeah, you're going to like going over there. I miss being in that building!" She said one day, "Would you like to go back?" I did have a struggle, because I enjoyed working in the Dean's Office so much that I just wasn't quite sure if I wanted to go back. But then I missed my friends in Parsons-Gates, so I said, "Yes." And it was great.

ZIERLER: How did your responsibilities change working with Margo?

CUMMINGS: It was more high level, less student involvement, which was a little sad for me, but it was working more with all the people in Student Affairs. They would have meetings with her. We had budgetary issues during that time. Campus had to really cut back. A recession was going on.

ZIERLER: The 2008 financial crash.

CUMMINGS: Yes. That was a difficult time. We had to lay off some people in Student Affairs, so it was stressful.

ZIERLER: As you mentioned earlier, the kinds of things that would get taken care of in the Dean of Students Office, some did bubble up to the Vice President for Student Affairs. What were those issues that were, as you mentioned, high level? What would get to the VP for Student Affairs?

CUMMINGS: Student suicide, of course, because the vice president would have to get involved and also involve the President of the Institute. So, that kind of thing, high-level student issues.

ZIERLER: Continuing the tour of presidents, did you interact with David Baltimore at all?

CUMMINGS: Yes, because I was in the building, and he was up and down the stairs, full of personality. I loved David. Yeah, he was fun.

ZIERLER: Same for Jean-Lou Chameau? Did you ever interact with him?

CUMMINGS: Yes. Different. A little more serious French man. Very polite, but friendly.

ZIERLER: You were with Margo until you retired?

CUMMINGS: No, I was with her until—it was awkward, but when Chameau became president, he decided he wanted to go back to the faculty model, and so she was let go. That was sad.

ZIERLER: Then it was Anneila?

CUMMINGS: Then it was Anneila. But I had almost a year by myself in that office. John Hall was Dean of Students, a wonderful man, loved him, and he was chosen to be the interim Vice President during that period while they tried to find another faculty member to take on being the Vice President for Student Affairs. He had so many hats. He was a faculty member. He was Dean of Students. He would come over as much as he could to meet upstairs for VP type meetings, but I was there a lot by myself. It was—sad. Then, luckily, they hired Anneila, so then things got back on track.

ZIERLER: Was John your supervisor, essentially, not having that VP for Student Affairs for the year?


ZIERLER: That must have been a very busy time for everybody.

CUMMINGS: For everybody, yeah. They were wearing duplicate hats for a while, until Anneila came on board.

ZIERLER: You would have witnessed both options—having a professional VP of Student Affairs and a faculty VP of Student Affairs. What are the pros and cons of each?

CUMMINGS: I really felt Margo brought the area of professionalism, as far as a Student Affairs like other campuses. She had that counseling experience. Just higher-level student interaction. The faculty were great because they related to the students, being faculty members at the campus, but they didn't have that area of experience with dealing with these issues with student counseling and honor code violations and having to have a student leave campus because they did something against the code. She really was like a counselor as well. I guess they just felt like the faculty wanted to have it go back to the faculty. It's a great model—don't get me wrong—but I really did feel that Margo did bring some things that might have been missing. But to be honest, I think the faculty thing works best. For Caltech. Because it's just a unique place.

ZIERLER: We mentioned the honor code violations. Tell me about the honor code, your perspective on the honor code, why it's so special.

CUMMINGS: It is so special, and it works, because they all know exactly what it is. The honor code, you don't take unfair advantage. You don't have to write it down on your exam before you take an exam; it's just you know what it is. And they honor that code. It really is honored. Unfortunately, we're humans, and some students just decide they have to do something against the code—cheat on an exam or—

ZIERLER: What do you think is supposed to be instilled in students in giving them this responsibility to live by the honor code, to be trusted to abide by the honor code? What is the takeaway supposed to be for the students, do you think?

CUMMINGS: It makes them a better person—and they're honored and they're trusted—and it takes them to their adulthood. When they leave campus as scientists, they go into business, they go into higher education, that honor code takes them through their life as an individual, is the way I see it. Alan, my husband, was there as a graduate student. He was also under the honor code. He also was at Rice and they had an honor code too. They had to actually write an honor code sentence before they took an exam, so it was different. It made him who he is today as well, a wonderful individual.

ZIERLER: In those unfortunate cases where the honor code is violated, how? What are the kinds of ways that students could violate the honor code?

CUMMINGS: Cheating on an exam.

ZIERLER: Plagiarism?

CUMMINGS: Plagiarism, absolutely. Maybe filling out their registrar's card and something—like saying I'm adding a class and they don't, or some violation there, in their classes.

ZIERLER: For student behavioral issues—and I wonder if this is where the Office of General Counsel comes into play as well—the students are legally adults, but obviously they are also kids, to some degree.

CUMMINGS: Yes, they are, and some of them were 16. We had 15, even a 14-year-old.

ZIERLER: What are the issues where you want to get the parents involved and you can't, or you feel like you have to get the parents involved? What does that look like?

CUMMINGS: When they're really young, under 18, we would have to get the parents involved. We had a really young student, and that took a lot of coordination. The parents actually lived somewhere else besides California, but they actually got an apartment to live near campus. This was a rare individual that was extremely—and I've forgotten now—13 or 14 years old. I think they were from Taiwan. So, the parents need to and have to be involved.

ZIERLER: Then Anneila comes in. What does that change for you?

CUMMINGS: She was a fireball! [laughs] And her husband Wal, at the time—he's passed away unfortunately, just a wonderful man as well—was also on campus.

ZIERLER: Did you bond as being a fellow Caltech couple?

CUMMINGS: Yeah. They were a fun couple. I loved Wal. I interacted with him because he would call every day and go, "How's the boss today? Does she want me to pick something up for dinner?" [laughs]

ZIERLER: [laughs]

CUMMINGS: It was kind of fun! But Anneila was very busy, because she had VP for Student Affairs duties, and she was also very busy with her CARMA, ALMA, and serving on the National Science Board in Washington DC.

ZIERLER: This is CARMA with a C.

CUMMINGS: Yes, CARMA with a C. So, she traveled a lot, and was very busy. She was going to Santiago in Chile a lot for ALMA for one thing. Yeah, she was a fireball.

ZIERLER: When did you start thinking about retiring? Was there a round number that you came up on?

CUMMINGS: No, it just sort of happened. I just sort of got, I don't know, just tired of things, and thought, maybe this is the right time to retire. I had been going to the Showcase House with my mother when she was alive for years and years, and it started to seem attractive to me to do something different.

ZIERLER: The next chapter.

CUMMINGS: Yeah, the next chapter.

ZIERLER: Did you have any idea that Alan would be going strong ten-plus years after you retired?

CUMMINGS: I did, because he loves it. I mean, if they didn't pay him—don't tell them that!—[laughs] he would still do it, because he loves it so much. My passion was starting to kind of get tired, and I thought, maybe it's time to do something a little different. Forty-two years, that's a long time.

ZIERLER: Forty-two years.

CUMMINGS: Yeah! It's a long time.

ZIERLER: When you retired, had Jean-Lou Chameau's big announcement that he was leaving already happened, or that was after?

CUMMINGS: No, that was after. Yes, he was definitely still there, because I was not on campus when Rosenbaum came on.

ZIERLER: The leadership lineup when you retired was Jean-Lou Chameau—


ZIERLER: Who was provost then? Ed Stolper?

CUMMINGS: Ed Stolper, absolutely.

ZIERLER: Right, because then Ed became interim president.

CUMMINGS: Yeah. Ed had a funny—

ZIERLER: Did you ever have interactions with Ed?

CUMMINGS: Oh, totally. His wife Lauren Stolper worked in the study abroad program, so I interacted with her a lot, and of course Ed, at parties and things. Again, this tall, booming-voiced man, always seemed so serious, like afraid of him. But he had the greatest sense of humor. He asked me in the hall, "So what are you gonna do on your first day of retirement?" I said, "Turn off the alarm." Oh, he let out this big laugh! I'll never forget it! Everybody in the offices were going, "What's so funny?" [laughs] He's a character.

ZIERLER: What was it like when you retired? How was that observed on campus?

CUMMINGS: Oh, my goodness, they put on a wonderful big party at the Athenaeum for me.

ZIERLER: Really!

CUMMINGS: Yeah, it was really nice. And I think—did I have all my deans there? I think everybody but Chris Brennen. I think he might have been out of town. He felt so bad, so he came over a week later and brought me flowers, because he couldn't attend, so it was really sweet.

ZIERLER: Oh, that's really nice.

CUMMINGS: They were all there, yeah.

ZIERLER: Do you remember who spoke at the Ath?

CUMMINGS: Oh, they all did. Gary, bless his heart, he said something about, "When I wasn't dean, I didn't have to go over to Parsons-Gates very much, but I had to go over there one day and I thought, oh, good, I get to see Suzette!" [laughs] He was so sweet. Anyway, yeah, they were all wonderful.

ZIERLER: You mentioned Caltech feels like a family. You felt that doubly so since Alan and you of course are a family.


ZIERLER: I wonder how that relates to—it's always a question as I do the history of Caltech, how such a small place has such a big impact—I wonder what your perspective is on the importance of the close relations, the close-knit community, and how that can translate to all of this amazing research. What do you think?

CUMMINGS: Oh, I just think it's so special. There is no place like Caltech. It's interesting that just locally, people get it mixed up with Poly, or Cal Poly Pomona or something, but yet when you really tell them—you know, "Caltech, the people you hear about on an earthquake day"—then they go, "Oh, you mean that amazing campus in Pasadena?" It has this huge reputation. I'm always so proud to say I worked at Caltech. It's just amazing. World-class scientists. And we get to be there! Amongst them! It's amazing when you think about it.

ZIERLER: In retirement, you had a pretty good idea this was your volunteer focus, this was your passion?


ZIERLER: It has been that way ever since?

CUMMINGS: Yeah, totally.

ZIERLER: Suzette, let me wrap up this wonderful conversation with a few retrospective questions. What are you most proud of during your career at Caltech? Where do you feel like you made the biggest impact?

CUMMINGS: Oh, my goodness. I think helping the students. I really feel like I had a role to play, and I really feel like that I meant something to them. I got so many nice gifts when I retired, and I had alums stay in touch for years. My most proudest moment was receiving an Honorary Alumna of Caltech award in 2001 by the Caltech Alumni Association.

ZIERLER: That's so nice.

CUMMINGS: It was really special.

ZIERLER: That's the best feedback you could ever get.

CUMMINGS: Yeah, really special.

ZIERLER: Particularly when you think about all the amazing things that they go on to do—

CUMMINGS: Oh, I know, it's so true!

ZIERLER: —that they might not have, if they didn't have a good experience or they didn't overcome some challenge at Caltech.

CUMMINGS: Yeah. I feel like in a small part, I hope that I helped them in their experience at Caltech to lead them to their goals in life.

ZIERLER: You experienced so many different leadership styles, so many different personalities. What works? What makes for a good leader? Of all you've seen at Caltech, what are some of the universal characteristics? Regardless of research experience or personality difference, what's always true to make a good leader?

CUMMINGS: A good sense of humor, someone that is caring and listens, and is just—just puts themselves in their shoes. Some are better than others. A good sense of humor means a lot.

ZIERLER: We'll end on a fun one. With you and Alan, would you talk Caltech at the end of the night, or is there a no Caltech policy?

CUMMINGS: Oh my goodness, no! The minute he walks in. But you know, Alan is so sweet. He does great things. I don't know a lot about it, I mean, details, as far as all his Voyager stuff and everything, but he makes it interesting for me. He leaves all the technical stuff at the door when he's home. We live and breathe Caltech, and it's great. We're really lucky.

ZIERLER: A fun one. One last one, looking to the future. Voyager will turn 50.


ZIERLER: Of course! In 2027.

CUMMINGS: In about three years, yeah!

ZIERLER: That's right. What are your and Alan's plan when that amazing thing happens?

CUMMINGS: The biggest party ever! [laughs] Hopefully at the Athenaeum. In fact, we had a big party at the Athenaeum for our fiftieth wedding anniversary at the end of this past October, and we also had our wedding reception there in 1973. Well, they did a knockout job for both events, let me tell you! [laughs] And I'm sure they would do a knockout job for Voyager's fiftieth.

ZIERLER: Something to look forward to in 2027.

CUMMINGS: Yes. They'll do a big party there, I'm sure.

ZIERLER: Excellent, I can't wait. Suzette, this has been a wonderful conversation. I want to thank you so much.

CUMMINGS: Oh, thank you, David! It has been wonderful. You'll have to come back and have dinner with us.

ZIERLER: I'd love it. Thank you.