Lab Tech Witnesses More Than a Half Century of History and Change at JHU

By Beth Walk

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Imagine for a moment what changes you would see over the course of half a century at Johns Hopkins. Six university presidents. The arrival of the first female undergraduates. New buildings erected on a continually expanding campus. Too many experiments, discoveries, and innovations to count. Gerri Chester can tell you about it first hand, because she has spent her entire 55-year career as a lab technician in the Krieger School’s Department of Biology.

On the eve of her November retirement, Chester reflected on her time on the Homewood Campus.

In October 1957, a young Gerri Chester entered the office of the personnel department and asked for a job—what would be her first. She had a friend who worked at the Faculty Club, and she hoped they would hire her there. But the answer she received was, “No, I have something much better for you.”

Gerri Chester (left) receives a plaque from Beverly Wendland, chair of the Department of Biology, on the occasion of Chester’s retirement after 55 years of working at Johns Hopkins.

The next day, she met with Professor Philip E. Hartman, who hired her to be a part-time lab helper, which meant washing glassware for four hours every other day. What began as a part-time job turned into a lifelong career that encompassed so much more than cleaning lab equipment.

For the next 39 years, Chester worked closely with Hartman, who taught her the ways of the department’s workspace. “He trained me for everything in the lab,” she recalls, from preparing culture plates to hunting down information in journals. “He stopped what he was doing to train me for technician work, so that whatever he assigned me to do, I was qualified to do.”

It wasn’t long before she was training everyone else who entered the lab—not only students, but also seasoned professionals. “No one did anything in the lab until they came through me,” Chester says. “Dr. Hartman had so much faith in me. He was my boss, my mentor, and my friend.”

Chester saw a lot of change over her 55 years on campus. “It was basically woods,” she says of much of the sprawling campus that is Homewood today. She recalls the opening of the Milton S. Eisenhower Library, particularly. When she started, each building had its own small library. When Hartman took her and another lab worker to the new library, where they would now go to reference journals, his whirlwind tour was so disorienting they had to go back without him and ask for a better orientation. “But we got the hang of it!” she laughs.

She also remembers excitement over inventions that made her job easier, like Xerox machines and plastic petri dishes. “When we had glass dishes, I would be trying to pour agar, and the glass dish would slide off the counter and break. When plastic came out, that was a big help. And then whoever invented the plastic that you could autoclave—amazing.”

Another noticeable change is the diversity of the student makeup. “When I came here it was all male,” she says. As an African-American woman working in a time and place dominated by white men, she says she never felt intimidated. She remembers Dr. Hartman going on recruiting trips down south to bring more African-Americans to Hopkins.

When she thinks back on what it was like when she started, and the diversity in the student population today, she marvels at how many more black people are getting a college education here now. “That is something I thought I could never live to see.”

When Chester started at Johns Hopkins, she had a 3-month-old daughter. She went on to have five more children, and with each one, she stayed home just six weeks before returning to work. She told her husband she would stop working once the last child graduated from high school, but he passed away one year before that, and she decided to just keep working.

“You know what kept me here? The support I got from each person I was surrounded by. When I lost my husband, and lost a daughter and a son, tragically, I went home and I just wanted to stay there. I felt like I just didn’t want to be around people,” she says. “Dr. Hartman and his wife came to my house and talked with me, said that I need to come back to work, that I need to be around people.”

No matter what she was going through personally, her love of her job and the people here kept her coming back, year after year.

So much so that not even retirement will keep her away. She hopes to come in a couple days a week as a volunteer. “I just want to stay here with my family,” she says.

And her Hopkins family feels the same way about her. At her retirement party, her coworkers presented her with a plaque, a duplicate of which will hang on the outside of the building. “We are already experiencing the effects of her retirement and we miss her every day,” says Beverly Wendland, chair of the Department of Biology. “It is astounding to think about how much history and knowledge she has about our department, and all of the amazing changes she has witnessed over the years. I’m so glad that she recognizes how much a part of our biology family she is, and that she has promised to come back to visit regularly.”

They are also sending her on a cruise, wherever she wants to go. “I cried so much. Tears of joy. It was just overwhelming to me,” Chester says of her send-off.