Flo Grant was working in the main offices of J.C.Penney & Co. in 1961 when she decided she needed a change and took a job uptown at Columbia. Four decades later, as departmental administrator for University security, she is still an integral part of the school and has accumulated an eclectic array of friends on campus that can be matched by few.
"Flo in Low," a name she coined herself since working in Low Library, has maintained relationships with all sorts of Columbians during the years -- from deans to deliverymen, presidents to payroll staff, administrators to students.
She became friends with the legendary Jacques Barzun in the early 1970s and still keeps in touch with the 92-year-old scholar. Every year she sends Barzun, University Professor Emeritus and recent author of the best-selling historical epic, "From Dawn to Decadence," a copy of the Columbia telephone directory. "He's so thrilled with that, and I get such lovely notes from him," she says. Grant also notes that Henry Graff, Professor Emeritus of History, has always been one of her favorites, adding, "He's such a sweet guy. Henry and I just love each other."
Getting to know the personal side of some of the world's best minds has been one of the most rewarding parts of the job for Grant, who says that countless holiday parties and other functions have always been the best place to strike up new friendships. With her warm personality and desire to offer help to whomever she can, the effort has never been difficult for her.
Grant is well known for the brownies she often bakes for co-workers and every spring she hands out candies to those participating in graduation, something she "just likes to do." Though not in her job description, she makes sure the giant flags flying on either side of Low Library are cleaned and even hems them herself when they need hemming. "Just like Betsy Ross," she says, laughing.
Since starting her career in 1961, "Flo in Low" has worked for the University's controller, the director of residence halls and dining rooms, the director of housing, the vice-president for finance and deputy to the president for governmental affairs, and the general counsel. Her favorite role at Columbia, however, has been working as an administrator for the security department, a job she has had since 1978.
Grant has played an important role in contributing to investigations by proving herself a reliable source for tracking down former employees and professors; few are better at knowing where to begin searches of that nature. She can call on 41 years of accumulated acquaintances to help her piece together information for sergeants needing to reach families and friends of those deceased or in need of help.
"I say to the guys, 'Call me anytime -- morning, noon or night -- don't care.' I love helping out because I'm good at it," she says.
George Smartt, assistant vice president for security, says that Grant's "total dedication to, and knowledge of the University" is surpassed by few. He remembers calling and waking her up in the middle of the night on many occasions to ask for help in a security emergency, always to find her ready and willing to do whatever she could. Her assistance, he notes, is especially valuable in crisis situations. Smartt says that Grant displays a natural sleuth's talent, knowing what immediate steps to take and how to handle herself with poise and professionalism.
"The kind of willingness to assist people [Grant shows] often tends to wash off on others," says Smartt.
Indeed, Grant enjoys the action of working in security. "I love the excitement," she admits. She found herself right in the middle of it in 1991 when author Salman Rushdie came to Columbia for his first public appearance in the United States after having death threats issued against him by Islamic militants. He was a guest at the School of Journalism's celebration of the 200th anniversary of the Bill of Rights.
Grant helped keep things in order, remaining the point person in the security office while the officers were out securing Rushdie's safety. His arrival, she said, was planned and executed with the greatest of precautions. The situation was intensified by the fact that other than some security department staff, nobody, especially the press, knew the controversial writer would be attending the event. A helicopter even brought Rusdie directly to campus by way of using South Field as a landing strip.
Of course, Grant has also watched the campus community react to tragedy. She remembers listening to the radio and hearing that President John F. Kennedy had been killed in Dallas. Classes were cancelled, offices closed down early and the flags were immediately set at half-mast. Grant says she had never seen so many students, professors and administrators all walking around in such a depressed daze.
She was in her office in Livingston Hall during the riots of 1968. "I watched the kids climbing up the walls," she says of the mobs of students who took over Hamilton Hall and the president's office in Low Library. She found reporters camped out in her office when she came to work in the morning. People were marching and screaming on College Walk and Broadway. The chaos required staying late into the night for several days to assist with administrative strategy sessions.
Was she scared by the scene on campus at that time? "No, because I love excitement," she says again.
Grant believes that protest period had monumental effects on the students she sees today. "Since the 60s, everything's changed," she says, noting the various styles in clothing and music she's watched come and go. She has seen the youth culture in Morningside Heights metamorphose from hippie, punk, hard rock, alternative and now to rap and hip-hop. The most obvious change has been the clothing. When Grant came to Columbia, many students still attended classes in jackets and ties, something rarely seen today. She admits that formal wear in the classroom would seem strange in these times and that regardless of what clothes the students wear or what music they listen to, "they're all good kids."
"Flo in Low" has observed a multitude of other changes at Columbia since her arrival. In the early 1960s, she notes, the University had no air conditioning, no whiteout and no computers. Several buildings had different names and there was a beautiful street of stately brownstones, called "Dean's Row," on 117th Street, which is now occupied by East Campus. There were also few restaurants and few good stores in the neighborhood and absolutely no girls allowed in any of the dorms.
The all-male residences posed a challenge for Grant who used to work in one of the ground level offices in Livingston Hall, a dorm now called Wallach. When going upstairs to a storage office, on a floor that also accommodated students, Grant says she would always shout, "Woman in the hall! Woman in the hall!," to announce her presence. "Otherwise," she notes, "they might have had their doors open, or who knows what."
Grant has no retirement plans yet, but someday she would like to volunteer for advocacy work and is intent on continuing her service as a notary public, which she's done for more than two decades. A job she started because it helped her to "meet so many people," she says she has notarized documents for "all the big names" at Columbia, including George Stephanopolous.
For now, "Flo in Low," is comfortable staying right where she is. "I love it here," she says. "I feel so at home." After 41 years, she has made Columbia a home for many others as well.