A woman who plays her cards right

Editor’s note: About 50,000 students, faculty members, staff and visitors converge on the University’s Twin Cities campus everyday. In the midst of this sea of people, it’s easy for some to think of the strangers passing them as just anonymous faces.
Every Monday during spring quarter the Daily will peek inside the lives of some of the strangers you see everyday. Randomly chosen from the University phone book, those profiled could sit in your class, ride your bus or just pass you on the sidewalk someday. They share the University with you. And now, they won’t be strangers.

Heather Fors

From the start of her predawn day, Julie Gfrerer has others on her mind. Every morning her motherly nature drives her from her home in Stillwater to work at the University to make coffee for her coworkers. That same compassion carries her back home at night to prepare dinner for her family.
As one of the first people in the office at 7:15 a.m., Gfrerer completes her morning tasks with other people in mind. She turns on the clock radio — which perpetually reads 9:15 a.m. — to a light rock station because she knows that the ladies in the office enjoy background music while they work.
Working as the chief secretary for University Police, however, is just one item on the 43-year-old’s list of responsibilities. Between working at the University, spending time with her family and helping with the family’s jewelry store, she is constantly on the go.

The road to the University
Gfrerer dresses in the dark so she doesn’t wake up her kids and her husband of 23 years, Dan. He gets a little more sleep before heading to one of his two family-owned jewelry stores.
Gfrerer helps out a little at the stores when she can, assisting with the finances or just helping to run the store during busy times, but her first priority is at the University.
After graduating in 1973 from Spencer School of Business in northern Iowa, Gfrerer came straight to the University to start her new job. She grew up on a small dairy and grain farm in northern Iowa, just south of the Minnesota border. But she said she didn’t have much interest in farming.
“She most always had a job once she was old enough,” said her 37-year-old brother, Steve Helm. Gfrerer worked at various stores in town.
The oldest of four children, she started taking care of others at a young age. Gfrerer learned to drive a tractor and cook before her other siblings. Her brother recalls that they all had chores to do. He remembers being out on the field with his mother and father and Gfrerer picking up rocks from the dirt and putting them in the hay rack behind the tractor.
Although this was the most dreaded chore, Helm said it built character. “She knows what work’s like,” Helm said. Because her mom had to help take care of the farm, Gfrerer was responsible for feeding her brother and sisters and getting them off to school. “She did a lot more cooking and that type of stuff than my other sisters,” Helm said. He added, “She’s always been one that never forgets birthdays or anything like that.”
She knew before graduating from high school that she wanted to have a business-related career. She also knew she wanted to live in a big city. After going to a two-year college, she considered finding work in either Des Moines or the Twin Cities. She visited Minneapolis during a break from school and applied to various employers around the area, including Pillsbury and the University.
Although the University paid less money, she thought happiness would be worth the pay cut. She knew she liked the community; there was always something going on and she could be around others her age — she was only 20 when she started working here.
After weighing the pros and cons, Gfrerer packed up her orange 1973 Chevy Nova and headed to the cities.
As a secretary in the Coffey Hall Office of Student Affairs, on the St. Paul campus, she had a lot of contact and interaction with the students.
After three years, Gfrerer found a higher position with the University Police Department. She’s been there ever since.

Been there, done that
“She’s our institutional memory,” said University Chief of Police Joy Rikala, Gfrerer’s supervisor. “She knows these people, she knows who’s who, she knows the campus … it’s very rare to have someone stay in one place for a long time.”
She can trace how each president has changed the University and remembers working through six University Police department heads. She can recall major events that have taken place over the years, like the shooting in President Nils Hasselmo’s office just a few years ago.
Rikala remembers Gfrerer’s role in one such event.
In March 1995, crisis struck the police department for the first time under Rikala’s command.
A long-simmering grudge against Dr. Mario A. Ruggero by former University graduate student John Arthur Castelupes, boiled over into a dangerous act of revenge. On March 9, Castelupes found Ruggero at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., and shot him multiple times.
Although the shots were not fatal, they were enough to grasp the attention of University officials. Rikala said the police knew he would be heading for the University next, because this is where the two had worked together, and there were others here with whom Castelupes had unsettled business.
Officials increased security to keep an eye out for him, and on March 10 he surfaced in the medical school. Officers arrived in time to keep him from harming others, but not to stop him from using the gun he put to his head to kill himself.
“It’s so sad that he perished, but I was so glad that none of our officers were hurt,” Gfrerer said.
The phone rang non-stop with calls from local and national press. It was a Friday afternoon and Dawn McVay, the other office secretary, was gone that day. Gfrerer stayed long past her normal leaving time to deal with the phone calls, expressing true dedication to her job.
“Julie’s never the one to say No, I’m only here for four hours today, I can’t get the job done,'” Rikala said.
That night Gfrerer stayed until 7:30 or 8 p.m. Rikala said Gfrerer will stay late and come in early to get the job done, and that’s one reason why they get along so well.
The “Ask Me”
Rikala described Gfrerer’s position at the University in comparison to the positions within the administrative body. She said the hierarchy at the top, such as the president and the deans, changes often. However, the support positions remain constant. She described these positions as “the glue” that holds the University together. “That’s Julie,” Rikala said. “She just makes things flow.”
Rikala and McVay both agree that Gfrerer is the “ask me” of the office.
“She’s very knowledgeable about the University,” McVay said. Gfrerer has the answer to just about any question, and if she doesn’t, McVay said Gfrerer knows where to find the information.
But the relationship between Gfrerer and her co-workers is not just professional; they have developed a more personal bond.
“Part of what makes the work environment is the people you work with,” Rikala said. “It’s a work relationship but yet there’s a trust that we’ve developed.”
Aside from the friendly banter carried on between all of them, there is a genuine friendship evident in their familiarity with each other. They know each others’ habits and families. Rikala chuckled about Gfrerer’s shoe collection in the coat closet next to her large stash of Pepsi, which she substitutes for coffee throughout the day after just a couple of cups.
When McVay ripped a small hole in her blazer one day at work, Gfrerer took the coat home over the weekend to repair it for her. “She’s our domestic one,” said Rikala. “We do things like that.”
The familiarity with one another is important for the dynamics of the work environment. “When you think about it, you see your co-workers more than your family,” said McVay. “We’ve become friends, she’s just a caring person, someone you could count on to always be there for you. I think caring is a good word,” McVay said.
“If you’re going to be there for 40 hours you’ve got to have fun,” McVay said. They all agreed it would be really hard to go to work every day if they didn’t enjoy it, and it’s the people that make the difference.
“If she’s having a bad day, I’m having a really good day because I’m trying to humor her — and vice versa,” McVay said.

Life without U
Gfrerer gives that same dedication to her family. When her children were born she time-shared with her predecessor to stay home more with her family. She worked two 10-hour days a week, and her husband got the kids up and ready to be taken care of by some friends during the day.
“That was really fortunate — I felt like I had the best of both worlds. I was home with my kids most of the time, but yet I got away from Big Bird and Bert and Ernie two days a week,” Gfrerer said.
She said she was very lucky to have a boss that allowed her to take so much time off to have three babies. She said she is still very fortunate to have an understanding boss; now she works at 80-percent time.
She said the lighter load is nice because then she can do the accounting for the jewelry stores and go on field trips with her kids.
Stephanie is 13 and her other children, Nick and Brandon, are 15 and 18, respectively. All of them are very active in school and sports and that means mom is too, providing transportation from one place to another.
The kitchen table is an important focal point of their house because it brings the family together for dinner. Although their busy schedules don’t always allow for everyone to be at home for dinner, Gfrerer said they all show up on Sundays.
Gfrerer’s enduring relationship with her husband began with a card game at a party. One of his friends from Stillwater was studying architecture at the University and one of the guys he roomed with was friends with a girl Gfrerer knew. It was all a matter of timing.
However, Dan Gfrerer said it wasn’t exactly love at first sight. “She beat me in cards — 500. I didn’t stand a chance.”
“You bet,” said Gfrerer, “I just had the cards that night.”
The two have grown into a comfortable relationship, evident in the Valentine’s Day cards they gave to each other this year.
“I gave him this card for Valentines and it had this nice little pillar, and it had this husband up on the pillar and it said Dear, you really belong on a pedestal … and while you’re up there, will you paint the ceiling?'”
Dan’s card was along the same lines, humorous and familiar. Normally, they wouldn’t have exchanged cards, but their daughter prompted the display of affection.
Gfrerer’s dedication to her family also shows in her pride for her children. She is especially excited that her “number one son” — as she calls him — has been accepted, as a freshman, into the University’s Carlson School of Management for the 1998-1999 school year.
Gfrerer is glad that Brandon knows where he’s going next year, especially considering the attitudes of others his age. “Some of them know where they’re going, others still don’t know, and it’s March of their senior year.”
She said she hopes he takes school seriously and doesn’t skip classes — at least not too often. It’s understandable that he would at times, just to test his freedom, but she doesn’t want his grades to suffer because of it. She said she reminds him that the teachers here won’t be watching out for him, like they do in high school, and he’ll be paying for these classes. She said she also wants him to experience dorm life, because it’s important for him to learn things on his own.
Her “number two son,” Nick, however, has his own concerns about his brother going away to college. Nick will be getting his driver’s license soon and said his parents will help him to convince his brother to leave the extra family car behind when he goes to college.
Nick is the Gfrerer’s quiet child. He’s interested in tennis and soccer and has become so good at table tennis, him mother will no longer play him. They have the table set up in the basement. Nick said he does not yet have any plans for college, which his mom says is OK since he still has plenty of time.
Despite her busy schedule with her family and work at the University and the jewelry store, Gfrerer manages to squeeze in a few hands of cards here and there.
History in the Cards
The hobby that first brought her and her husband together has played a long hand in her life. When she started her position at the police department Capt. McDonogh immediately recruited her as his lunch-time cards partner. His regular partner had just left the department.
The days they played she had to remember to bring a bag lunch because the game came first. They couldn’t go out for lunch — they wouldn’t have the time.
Although she no longer plays cards at lunch — not since McDonogh retired — she does continue to play about once a month with a card club. The last time she played, she said the cards were not with her. She won low prize — a bouquet of tulips. She said she was surprised that the low prize was something so nice.
Between spending time with her family, working at the University, helping with the jewelry store and playing cards, Gfrerer is constantly on the go, but pleasantly content.
“I guess sometimes I feel like I have a very full plate, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.”