UPDATED Monday, July, 13, 2015: Olga E. Perez passed away on Friday, July 10, 2015. The flag at College Hall was to be lowered to half staff in her honor on July 14.
When Kimberly Lebron arrived with her family members at a banquet earlier this summer honoring longtime Smith employees, they met with teasing from some of their co-workers.
“They said, ‘Look at the Perez family: they take up a whole table!’” recalled Lebron, who is an assistant with the Praxis program in the Lazarus Center for Career Development.
The lineup at their banquet table went like this: Lebron, who has worked for Smith for 20 years, starting in the class deans office; her brothers, Albert Evans-Perez and David Perez, who have been at the college for 35 years and 32 years, respectively, in information technology and facilities management; and their mother, Olga Perez, who retired in 2003 after 29 years as a dining room assistant at Smith.
Missing from the celebration was Lebron’s father, Charles Perez, who died in February of lung cancer at 84. He had worked in maintenance and as a housekeeping supervisor at Smith for 23 years before retiring in 1998.
There are other Smith families with similarly long employment tenures, according to the college’s Office of Human Resources. Still, the Perez family stands out for having had so many members working on campus at the same time.
At one point, three of four Perez children and both parents were employed at the college. Adding up their work histories, the family has given 139 years of service to Smith.
For Lebron, being on campus was part of growing up in Northampton.
“I’d come to campus and hang out with my dad,” she said in a recent interview at her office in Drew Hall. “I would walk home from high school and stop by his office in Emerson House. My mother also—I’d show up at the houses where she was working. The dining staff was always so friendly.”
Lebron said Smith was a welcoming place for her parents, who had come to the United States from Puerto Rico and spoke limited English when they first settled in Northampton in the 1950s. Charles and Olga Perez worked on a tobacco farm in South Deerfield and at Cooley Dickinson Hospital—among other places—before finding jobs at Smith, their daughter said.
“My parents instilled in me the value of hard work,” said Lebron, who attended Northampton High School and Holyoke Community College before starting a job two decades ago as an assistant in Smith’s class deans office.
“They always talked about what a good place Smith was to be,” she added.
What’s kept Lebron working at the college for so many years—including in her current job with the summer Praxis program for Smith sophomores and juniors?
“I’ve met a lot of great people, but it’s the students who keep you coming back,” she replied. “They’re such great kids, and they’re all different. You really get attached.”
Her mother agrees.
“I used to love the students,” said Olga Perez, in a phone interview from her home in Easthampton. “Oh my gosh, they used to be my young daughters!”
She especially enjoyed cooking Latino dishes for special campus events and for students from Spanish-speaking countries.
“Sometimes I’d bring food to them in the infirmary,” Olga recalled. ”It would seem like home.”
Kathleen Zieja, director of dining services at Smith, said staff members still miss Olga’s presence on campus.
“She spent a number of years as a dining room coordinator at Talbot House, out in front, welcoming the students,” Zieja said. “She had such a cheerful, positive disposition. She was just a delight.”
The 25-Year Club banquet in June for college employees with 25 years or more of service was a poignant event for the Perez family, coming as it did just a few months after Charles Perez’ passing.
“The only thing missing there was my father,” said Al Evans-Perez, who started working at Smith as a summer groundskeeper when he was 16 and is now a telecommunications manager in information technology.
His brother, David Perez, a residential custodian in facilities management, said the banquet sparked memories of working with his dad years ago on the Quad.
“I’ve been at Smith for almost 33 years,” David Perez added. “What I like is that pretty much everyone gets along. I’ve worked with so many good people.”
And what of the younger generation of the family?
So far, none of the Perez’ grandchildren are working at Smith, though Lebron’s eldest daughter, Brielle DeJesus, 22, worked for two summers for facilities management. Lebron also has a 12-year-old daughter.
Her husband, Carlos, is a Northampton police officer.
”When he retires, maybe he will come here to Smith,” Lebron said, with a smile.