Not quite 36 years ago, Fran Becker walked into JVS to work as a temporary receptionist — and she stayed. She became an administrative mainstay of the agency and has managed to maintain a big smile and a buoyantly optimistic attitude. This week she is retiring, so Larry Rand sat down with her to find out the secrets of her long career.
Q: Do you remember your first day?
A: I actually do.
Q: What was it like?
A: It was in December of 1978. I was kind of green. I had grown up in the suburbs, in Franklin Park. At that time we were living in the city, in West Rogers Park, so I had to take the el into the big bad city, which was a new experience. I started out as a temp, filling in the receptionist position.
I had two friends who worked at JVS. They had told me, “They have this opening for a temp, why don’t you come and we’ll have a good time. We’ll travel together,” et cetera. My friend Mardele worked in the job order room at that time.
I loved it! I loved the people; staff were really nice. My supervisor was Carol Sittler, and she was just a doll. I still talk to her periodically; she retired several years ago. I knew this was a place I could work for. In December, it will be 36 years ago that I began.
Q: Where was the agency then?
A: We were at 1 S. Franklin on the second floor; it was called Jewish Vocational Service at that time, JVS for short. At that time we would make appointments for the counselors. We’d have a little background for each counselor, since different counselors would take different kinds of clients — pretty much the same way they do today. We would have their schedule and book their appointments for them.
Sitting up there, we would have letters we would send out, and I would notice that the letters didn’t look really good. I thought, “Gee, while I’m sitting here I could do these letters,” so that’s how I started doing different things. When a permanent job opened up, I applied for it, and I just kept moving up in the agency.
Q: Had you worked for other places before?
A: No! I had worked for my husband in his office, and I didn’t work when my kids Michael and Rochelle were little. It was when they got bigger that I went to work. I connected with JVS right away.
Q: Your husband never gave you trouble about working?
A: No, it was fine. I had worked with him, in his office, and that wasn’t working out so well — some very quiet car rides home (laughs). As a matter of fact, even his boss said, “I think this is a good opportunity for Fran.”
Q: How was the agency different then? Were the mission or the goals of the agency different?
A: Not the goals; they want to help people find employment. Our programs changed over the years, depending on the economic climate of the country, and people’s needs changed. The equipment is very different, with computers and all. Vocational counseling changes, but the people themselves are basically the same. Goal-wise we’re still on track with what it was when I came.
The counselors change. It’s a good opportunity for our career counselors to get their feet wet and then go on to other places. We have a lot of people who leave and later come back, which I think is a pretty positive statement. At some places they like to burn their bridges, but here, if something opens up, they come back.
Q: Did you plan on working a long time when you started?
A: No, I didn’t. Things would open up, and next thing you know, you realize, “I have been here a long time!” (laughs)
It’s not like I was stuck doing one thing. If I had had to stay working as a receptionist all these years, I don’t think I could have done that. As opportunities opened, I had a chance to advance in my career, and I learned all kinds of things. For example, we had a program for testing veterans, and I would do psychometric testing for veterans. That was interesting. I would type up the reports that the counselors would write up. And I worked for the refugee department in clerical. Most refugees were from Indochina or Russia — lots of people coming in at that time.
Our neighbors in Highland Park, where I live, were some of the first Russian refugees whom JVS settled here; they have a very good feeling about JVS.
Q: Anything you didn’t like so much?
A: No. I got involved in helping to write contracts, all kinds of things. The closest I came was when I worked in the Accounting department typing up budgets — I’m not big on numbers. It was okay, and it gave me a chance to get more comfortable with numbers. Before that I used to kind of freeze when I had to deal with numbers. It was good for me. It has been a learning experience all the way.
Q: How about characters you met along the way?
A: We were just talking about a fellow who used to work in the HR department years ago who was funny. When we were laughing, he’d come over and try to find out why; he was always feeling left out.
There were memorable clients, too. When I was at the reception desk, the elevator doors opened right into the reception area. The elevator doors opened up one day, and a man came out wearing a pillbox hat with a veil, woman’s clothing and earrings; he had a huge Adam’s apple. We had him in the book as a man, but he went into this long story about how he had had a sex change operation and was now Alice instead of Alex (NOTE: client’s name has been changed).
That took me aback, since I had been brought up in a rather sheltered existence — but it shows how diverse our client population was even then. I don’t remember if we found her a job. That was back in 1979, when that kind of thing was not as common as it is today.
We had another client for a long time, and she finally got a job. She just got so totally emotional about us helping her to find a job that I remember it to this day.
Q: It’s so rare nowadays for someone to stay so long at one place. Why do you think you stayed?
A: I really liked the people. I believed in what the agency was doing, and our executive director at the time, Alan Goldstein, was a good guy. It just felt like home. You could go as far as you wanted, and you could do as much as you wanted. I was at the receptionist desk, I was typing up letters for the clients and doing other things for the counselors because I had typing skills. At that time, we didn’t have computers. Your skills were important. They liked me, I liked them.
Q: Why retire now?
A: Things have been changing, and the changes are good, but I’ve gone from having one boss for 30+ years to having several in a few. Gail Gruen was here for two years, Richard Rotberg came back for two, then we had Carolyn Jones. The thought of starting up again with someone new doesn’t appeal enough.
The new strategic alliance was not a factor in my decision; I think Howard and the JCFS staff are wonderful, and I can’t say enough good things about them. They’re very good people. They have their ducks in a row.
A: No, I’ve had a good time. JVS has been very, very good to me. Richard Rotberg, Marty Kaplan, Alan Goldstein and Gerald Silverstein — I learned so much from them. They had brilliant minds, and my skills improved vastly because of them. Who would want to go any place else, when you’ve got what I felt were the best in their field?
I had other offers. I was offered a job with Leo Burnett advertising agency doing administrative work, and one with a law firm. It just wasn’t what I was interested in. It’s not manic here as it is there.
Q: What’s next?
A: My husband is traveling all the time; I’ll have an opportunity to travel with him. We have tickets for Florida in January and Israel in February. And on the 23rd of this month I’ll be in Holland. My sister Pam lives in Holland, and she’s retiring, too. She lives in a small town between Amsterdam and Haarlem. After 28 years there, she wants to move back to the States, so I’m helping her. She’s going to live with us. It just worked out.
Q: What haven’t I asked you about this long experience that I should have?
A: It’s just been a good experience all the way around, and I still say that I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. There is more to do, and I don’t know what doors will open — and I can always come back here and volunteer.
Q: What advice would you have for someone starting at the agency today?
A: Just that it’s an opportunity to grow; you can go as far as you want here. To me a job is something you define. It’s not necessarily your job description; you can make it better than what it is on paper. I think a lot of it has to do with attitude. If you think your job sucks, then it sucks. If you look at it like, ‘Can I do this better or change this situation?’ that’s how you get by for 35 years. That’s how I’ve always thought. If you have a positive outlook, people pick up on it, and your day can be better.