Dolbin plans future after career of assisting Penn State presidents

University Park, Pa. -- On Sept. 30, after observing the 45th fall class of new students arrive on campus to start their college experience, Carolyn Dolbin will leave her office in the heart of Old Main for the last time. On that day she will conclude her professional career of 44 years, all at Penn State, and join the ranks of retirees. Before her departure, she must prepare to hand over some of the most important responsibilities under her charge, which she has managed during the terms of three Penn State presidents, including 16 years for current President Graham Spanier.

Her official title is executive administrative assistant to the president, but to say that she coordinates the president's schedule and helps organize his meetings and events --not to mention handling his correspondence -- would understate her actual job as University liaison, devoted fan and trusted adviser to many. For more than 25 years she has been the presidential logistical coordinator, problem-solving expert and schedule maestro -- with deep knowledge of all that is Penn State.

"Carolyn Dolbin has become the University's chief confidant, organizer, friend raiser, den mother, problem solver and protocol officer," said Spanier. "She knows everyone and everything. She is trusted by all, can turn mean-spirited people into happy campers and has flawless judgment. She can see trouble around corners. Her instincts have allowed her to stay a step ahead of three presidents and contribute profoundly to their successes. Her contributions to the advancement of Penn State are mostly unheralded but nevertheless very significant."

Her role is so demanding, requiring an exceptionally savvy, knowledgeable, quick-thinking and tactful person to fill her shoes -- not to mention an "untiring work ethic," another quality attributed to Dolbin -- that the University has begun the search to find her replacement today (May 5), more than four months before her retirement date. (Exceptional candidates are invited to apply for the challenging, rewarding position at online.)

Nearly everything Dolbin does in her work is critically important for a president who interacts with national and international dignitaries on a weekly basis, serves on national and international boards and follows a schedule that normally operates 16 hours a day -- fully and often in 15-minute increments. She must tactfully coordinate schedules with other major university presidents, CEOs, presidential candidates and even occasionally the sitting president of the United States. (Spanier, for instance, has welcomed to Penn State three of the last four sitting U.S. presidents -- George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.)

"I’ve had the pleasure of shaking hands or catching a glimpse of several U.S. presidents, first ladies and candidates, famous alumni and special visitors to campus," said Dolbin. "And, yes, even a word with our famous football coach, Nittany Lion mascot, Blue Sapphire, members of the Blue Band and many of our other amazing students. I love their enthusiasm – I get excited. They inspire me and others who work here every day."

How many appointments she has secured in more than 25 years while working adjacent to the president's office? Dolbin offers an impressive, if rough, estimate of 75,000 -- although, as anyone who has tried to bring two busy people together could understand, her attempts to arrive at a final time and date for each of those appointments would easily push that number well above six figures. What is more meaningful to Dolbin, however, is the surprising number of Penn State connections she has made.

"Arranging national and international travel to meetings and conferences has given me the opportunity to work with people all over the world. I’ve sent letters, talked, faxed and emailed colleagues at various colleges, universities and governmental agencies. Often, I would be in touch with someone who had a Penn State connection, a great reminder that there are Penn Staters everywhere," she said.

Dolbin has only known one employer during her career, having started work at Penn State in June 1966 -- a fresh-faced graduate of the State College Area School District. She began as a secretary in the Department of Agricultural Economics and Rural Sociology. (She received her first University paycheck, however, during summer 1965 when she transcribed tapes for a psychology study on restaurant sanitation and customer satisfaction.) Her career took her from secretarial positions in the College of Agricultural Sciences to the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, and from 1970 through the end of 1972 to Penn State Schuylkill, where she served as faculty secretary and receptionist. While there, she began her habit for going above and beyond the call of duty: "I dressed up as a turkey," she explains, "complete with flippers, a beak and eye lashes -- for a Thanksgiving choir concert on campus directed by James Beach."

She returned to University Park in January 1973 as secretary in the Office of the Vice President for Research and Graduate Studies, and then in October 1973 was named secretary to the provost. She served three provosts during nearly 11 years in that office -- Russell Larson, Edward Eddy and James Bartoo. Then in July 1984, after Bryce Jordan had observed his first anniversary as Penn State's president, Dolbin became his executive assistant, and subsequently transitioned supervisors twice more, when Joab Thomas served as president from 1990 to 1995, and again when her current (and longest-standing) supervisor, Graham Spanier, was named president-elect on March 16, 1995. He took office that year on Sept. 1.

From his home in Austin, Tex., Jordan recalled his search for the perfect applicant: "After I read Carolyn's resume and recommendations and interviewed her, I felt that I had found the right person. Nonetheless, one always wants on-the-job assurance that the choice was right. Carolyn was quick to prove that she was indeed the ideal person for the position. She was alert and courteous to visitors, whether they came to lodge a complaint, request information or conduct serious business. Her knowledge of the University and its people was extensive, and her enthusiasm for her job and the University was infectious. She was articulate, highly intelligent and beautifully groomed. In her oversight of the ebb and flow of office business she was systematic and technically skilled. She was all of those things and more from the start, and I have no doubt she still is. President Spanier is certain to miss Carolyn's pleasant demeanor, her competence and her consistent work ethic, as will her friends and colleagues elsewhere on the University Park campus."

Thomas, writing from his home in Tuscaloosa, Ala., also reflected on Dolbin's significance. "Carolyn served as a world-class administrative assistant to several presidents of The Pennsylvania State University and has made enormous contributions to their successes," he wrote. "Her knowledge of the University and its faculty and staff has been extraordinarily extensive throughout her career. She is charming and has consistently shown great sensitivity and understanding in dealing with difficult situations and difficult people. Although I understand that she has earned the rewards of retirement, many of her present and past associates will greatly miss her amazing assistance. Carolyn was not only supportive of Marly and me, but also of our family. We feel that she and her family are almost a part of our family."

Dolbin has enjoyed her behind-the-scenes work that helped Presidents Jordan, Thomas and Spanier "run Penn State," as she says, but is quick to add, "I could never have been successful in my role if it weren’t for hardworking, dedicated and caring colleagues. I’ve been surrounded by the best. I’ve made friends for life -- a gift indeed."

She has kept in touch with scores of students, including many she has met from her involvement as a board member of the Lutheran Campus Ministry and the Skull and Bones Alumni Interest Group. She has been on the mascot selection panel, the interview committee for cheerleaders and for many years has been among the Homecoming Parade judges.

"Penn State is one of the top research universities because of our outstanding faculty, staff and students," she said. "I’ve enjoyed and cherished my interaction with students. I’ve learned so much from them and am inspired by what they have accomplished. I love to hear about their plans and their dreams."

Starting this fall, Dolbin will use her retirement to spend more time with her own Penn State family -- her husband David, daughter Megan and son Todd all have degrees from Penn State; her family also includes son-in-law Andrew MacNab and granddaughter Sylvia -- but she won't be absent from campus. As she did while she was making plans for others, she will return to Penn State to take more classes.

"I am blessed and honored to be part of the Penn State family," said Dolbin. "Also, I am honored to have worked with dedicated and caring colleagues these many years. Penn State holds a special place in my heart."

Carolyn Dolbin Credit: Scott Johnson / Penn StateCreative Commons

Last Updated October 17, 2019