Reiff turned minutes into 28-year recording UD-3 board
MIDDLEBURY — It was in 1982 that then-UD-3 school board Chairwoman Natalie Peters asked Helen Reiff if she wouldn’t mind taking minutes for the group, which oversees Middlebury Union Middle School and High School.
She accepted the gig, and those minutes turned into years — 28 of them, to be precise. Now Reiff, concerned that her failing hearing might prevent her from accurately performing the job she has enjoyed so much, has decided to resign as the UD-3 board’s recorder.
“At my last meeting, I was saying, ‘What?’ and ‘Who did you say made that motion?’” noted Reiff, a diminutive lady with a big heart who in her golden years continues to freelance as a copy editor and proofreader.
“I was embarrassed,” she said of her inability to pick up key phrases during the meeting. “I thought, ‘They need someone who can hear.’”
It wasn’t always that way.
Reiff heard — and accurately transcribed — facts, figures, motions, vote tallies and summaries of conversations from hundreds of UD-3 board meetings, some of which stretched into the wee hours.
She listened intently and let other people do the talking while she scribbled fast and furious on her notepad.
“There were times I wished I could say something, but I rarely did,” Reiff said with a chuckle. She recalled stepping away from her recording desk and into the crowd on a couple of occasions in order to speak, but Reiff spent her career mostly seen and not heard. And that’s just the way she wanted it.
“I liked it,” Reiff said. “And I wouldn’t have stopped if it hadn’t been for my hearing.”
Reiff has been virtually unstoppable during a long, productive life that she — like many of her generation — would rather not quantify.
“I’m old enough to vote,” she relied wryly, when asked her age.
She concedes that people will be able to do the math when informed of her lengthy resume.
Reiff graduated from Oberlin College in 1946, and that was after having temporarily left post-secondary education to get a taste of the working world in the Midwest, the West Coast and eventually the East Coast. Her jobs included typesetting at a newspaper, editing the Oberlin College Alumni Magazine, toiling part-time for the U.S. Census Bureau, working for a publisher of law books and legal publications, and serving as a legal secretary. That latter job she applied for in longhand, instead of the typewritten piece she assumed would be the norm with other candidates.
It was a strategy that paid off.
“The chief lawyer asked me if I would like to know why he picked me, and he said it was because I wrote my letter in longhand,” Reiff proudly recalled.
She and her late husband, Robert, moved to Middlebury in 1958, when he signed on as a professor with Middlebury College’s art department. Helen soon landed a job with the U.S. Social Security Administration, working primarily out of the Burlington office. Her career also included stints as registrar of Middlebury College (one year) and with the Vermont Department of Employment and Training in Middlebury.
Reiff liked to stay busy and knows the value of a dollar, so she supplemented her day jobs with work as a copy editor and proofreader. She continues to do such work out of her home. Some of Reiff’s most frequent customers used to be Middlebury College students, some of whom hired her to proof their theses. Reiff’s student client list included now-Middlebury College Charles A. Dana Professor Emeritus of Philosophy Victor Nuovo.
“I proofed his PhD thesis,” Reiff recalled.
When Robert Reiff died in the early 1980s, Helen was looking for something to keep her busy and take some of the edge off her mourning. The UD-3 position proved to be the right job at the right time.
When asked what she wanted for compensation, Reiff initially thought about asking for $1 per page — the same amount she was charging to students for proofreading services. But she and the board ultimately agreed on a wage of $10 per hour, a figure that inched up slightly through the years.
“By the end of my tenure, I think I was making $15 an hour,” Reiff said.
Reiff confessed she found herself interested in some of the more dry topics that came before the board, such as the annual budget. She recalled, with some amusement, how the board would sometimes spend a few minutes approving tens of thousands of dollars in UD-3 pay orders, then spent upwards of 45 minutes discussing the merits of adding less than $100 to one of the sports budgets.
The length of Reiff’s minutes changed over the years, per the school board’s instructions. She initially included summations of debates that occurred during the meetings, but was asked to pare back to more specific accounts of subject, motions and vote tallies.
“The board decided that the minutes should not be about what people said or thought,” Reiff said. “It got very easy to take the minutes.”
Reiff, at one point, said she was asked to type out the minutes on a computer in the Addison Central Supervisory Union office the night of the meeting. That was because district officials wanted to make sure the minutes were electronically recorded, and Reiff had been accustomed to longhand, shorthand and typewriter.
She said she always tried to get things right, even if it meant going to the Middlebury Community Television studios to play back the tape on the meeting.
Past UD-3 board chairmen praised Reiff for her service.
“Helen was a delight, and a treasure chest of institutional memory for so many years,” former UD-3 board chairman and current member Tom Beyer said.
“She was far more than a recorder; she could shed light on an issue before the board,” he added. “I looked forward to her presence and her notes, which were perhaps the most complete in all of Vermont.”
Former Chairman Dr. James “Chip” Malcolm echoed those sentiments.
“Helen was always there and ready to take the minutes,” Malcolm said. “She was consistent, dependable and she had an attention to detail that was superb. We knew we could always rely on her. She will surely be missed.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].