Campus & Community

Janitor’s granddaughter fulfills Harvard dream

6 min read

Family legacy leads to degree

Editor’s note: Paula Ehler, graduating from the Extension School today, in this essay recounts how Harvard has influenced her family’s history, and vice versa.

Harvard is in my blood, though not in the traditional sense. I was born and brought up in Cambridge, Mass., as were my mother and her siblings. My grandparents struggled to raise seven children during tough financial times, and a college education was not an option.

My grandfather was in the Navy and served his country as a chief gunner’s mate. After receiving an honorable discharge in 1926, he was hired by Harvard University, becoming the first janitor of the newly built Straus Hall, and later the janitor at Matthews Hall. One of his duties was to ring the chapel bell for five minutes each day to awaken freshmen who lived in dorms around Harvard Yard.

My grandfather was intensely proud of working for Harvard, and his affection for his freshmen at Matthews Hall was reciprocated. In the March 1942 issue of The Harvard Crimson, an unnamed author wrote a short story about my grandfather, who was leaving Harvard after 17 years to train naval troops for combat in World War II. The author called him “[the] chief watcher over Matthews.”

The Crimson published another article about my grandfather a month later. It reported that my grandfather had died from a heart attack at the Naval Training Station in Newport, R.I., and that Harvard would pay an “Official University tribute … [to] one of the College’s best-loved janitors.” The author wrote:

1926 saw the beginning of the Ehler tradition in the Yard. Every present and former inhabitant of Matthews remembers [his] bellowing summons to the telephone and his remarkable knack for knowing all there is to know around the Yard. He was also noted for his colorful tap-dancing.

My Aunt Frances remembers his funeral. It was a bright, sunny day in April. The procession drove by Harvard in tribute, and, as the vehicles passed Matthews Hall, the University rang chapel bells in honor of the beloved custodian.

My own experience at Harvard began in the 1960s when I attended high school at what is now Cambridge Rindge & Latin. Every day, I walked through Harvard Yard to catch the bus to and from school, and my friends and I would often linger to immerse ourselves in the splendor of the architecture and the serenity of birds chirping in the stately trees. Each time I heard Harvard’s bells chime, I would think of my grandfather putting on his leather gloves to avoid getting splinters from the bell rope, then ringing the chapel bell to awaken students nestled snugly in their beds. Walking the spidery footpaths of the Yard, I was enchanted by the mystique of Harvard, and I knew that the students studying here were exceptional people. I fantasized that I would be a student here myself one day. But when I graduated from high school the dream of Harvard — or any college — was out of reach because my family didn’t have enough money to provide for my further education.

Over the following years, I held a number of secretarial jobs in Cambridge, including one at Harvard. I loved being back at the University, and the highlight of each day was walking through the Yard and eating lunch on the steps of the Memorial Church. While working for the University, I took advantage of the Tuition Assistance Plan and enrolled in the associate degree program at the Extension School. I felt proud that I was actually a student at Harvard.

There were many other wonderful changes in my life during those years. I got married and we were blessed with a beautiful baby girl. She was in private day care until she turned 5 years old and began kindergarten. I gave up my job at Harvard to be there for her when she got home from school every day, and, as a result, I didn’t complete the degree program at the Extension School.

Our daughter is a young woman now, and in 2007, while researching colleges for her, one of the Web sites we checked out was Harvard University. When I told her that years ago I was enrolled at Harvard, she was astonished. She then offered me the best advice I had heard in a long time: Go back and finish my degree. This snapped me out of my intellectual slumber; that day I re-enrolled in the associate degree program at the Extension School.

I was nervous as I walked through the Yard and entered Sever Hall for the first time in nine years. After all, I was now 56 years old, and I worried that all those years away from school had dulled my scholarly capabilities. I had doubts that I would be able to keep up with countless hours of studying, reading, and writing. But as I walked through the crisp fall day, I again felt Harvard’s magic, and after my first class, I knew I was doing the right thing.

My grandfather’s legacy lives on in my family. Like him, my daughter is a talented tap dancer; obviously, she got some of her great-grandfather’s genes. In the fall, she will attend George Mason University. My husband and I will proudly attend her high school graduation on June 3; the next day, I will receive my associate degree at Harvard’s Commencement.

Harvard Extension School will celebrate its 100th anniversary next year as the School’s mission of making a Harvard education accessible to everyone, not just a privileged few, continues into its second century. The Extension School has reawakened my enthusiasm for learning, and reinforced my desire to achieve my aspiration of becoming a writer. Because of the Extension School, I was able to fulfill my dream of one day graduating from Harvard, and I am learning the skills I need as I reinvent myself. Now enrolled in the Extension School’s bachelor’s degree program, I eagerly anticipate many more years of demanding work.

My resolve to follow my chosen path will be strengthened by the echo of Harvard’s bells when I file into Tercentenary Theatre on Commencement morning, and I will pause at Matthews Hall to reflect upon the kind, gentle janitor who once graced her ivy-covered walls.

Paula Ehler of Everett received her associate degree this morning from the Harvard Extension School and is now an A.L.B. candidate.