Friends, colleagues gather to honour Noli Swatman


Above: Noli Swatman

Perhaps it was the prospect of enjoying Noli Swatman’s well-known spunkiness one last time that drew the crowd to a retirement party held in her honour last week. Or maybe it was her “professionalism” or her “commitment to York”. Some say it is all of those characteristics that have made Swatman, who served until recently as director of York’s Office of Research Administration (ORA, now known as the Office of Research Services), one of the most popular research administrators in Canada. On June 10, the private dining room in the Seymour Schulich Building was bursting with laughter and good wishes as long-time and more recent members of the York community gathered to bid farewell to a much-loved colleague.

Suzanne MacDonald (left), AVP research, welcomed the crowd who were there to join in the celebration of Swatman’s years of service. Stan Shapson (right), VP research & innovation, then stepped up to the podium, followed by Ralph Nicholls, professor emeritus in the Department of Physics & Astronomy and founding director of  the Centre for Research in Earth & Space Science, and Judith Hellman, professor of political science in the Faculty of Arts.

“Noli is recognized here, in Ottawa and in other agencies,” said Shapson, “for possessing the knowledge, the skills and the integrity to represent research skills at York. Whenever I travelled to Ottawa, I heard many wonderful stories about Noli and what she has done in support of all the people who are here, and of those who weren’t able to attend.

“Noli worked hard for York, and many of you here benefited from that commitment. I know there were times when it was about a minute before the deadline for a grant application, and the courier arrived to pick it up and had to be given doughnuts so that Noli could do a last check of the application and get it out the door,” said Shapson, as the guests chuckled loudly, remembering her dedication.

“It is more difficult to describe this next characteristic. Some call it spunky; others call it a healthy disrespect for authority. And some would drop the word ‘healthy’,” added Shapson as people dissolved in laughter.

To Swatman’s great amusement, Shapson read a mock research project into her life to get to the root of her “spunkiness”, starting with recollections of St. Louis High School in Kilkeel, Northern Ireland. “Who was the meanest, toughest nun in the school? Sister Ludovicus. We spoke to people who knew her and knew your time in the school, and then we understood it all. And we forgive you the spunkiness…. In fact, we thank you for the spunkiness.”


Left, from left to right: Josh, Deidre, Chris, Carrie, Trevor and Noli

Swatman, obviously enjoying herself completely as she stood with her family (husband Trevor, daughter Deidre and son-in-law Josh, daughter Carrie and fiancé Chris), listened delightedly to various speakers who were there to say thank-you and farewell to a treasured colleague.

After she opened her gifts, Swatman, too, spoke to the crowd, saying how much she had enjoyed working with all of the individuals who came to wish her well. “As for the nun – Sister Ludovicus – I think you got that information from some school friends of mine, whom I’ll be meeting in England soon. They are from St. Louis High School in Kilkeel, Northern Ireland. Boy, was that school full of rules! The nuns there taught me what I needed for the job in research administration.

“I was invited to a lunch at the University of Toronto a few days ago [by York’s Office of Research Services and Government Research Initiative Programs], and GRIP director Judith Chadwick said the requirements of working in research administration is the ability to break or bend all the rules without getting caught – and that is what the nuns taught me!” she said, as the sound of laughing swamped the room.

“We in ORA were a small staff initially, but we had a lot of fun and we worked very hard with few resources, in the beginning.”

As she thanked various colleagues publically, Swatman singled out “the Unholy Trinity, who have been with me for so long – Marilyn Di Florio, Gisela Birmingham and Fazyah Mohammed. This has been the career of a lifetime,” she added, “and I have enjoyed it…. I will really miss you all.”

Heartfelt words from Ralph Nicholls

Shapson’s tribute was followed by a heartfelt speech by Ralph Nicholls, who called Swatman “the personification of all that is admirable about research administration at York…. She guided so many of us to the successful receipt and management of grants and contracts from Canadian, US and other agencies.”

Left: Noli Swatman and Ralph Nicholls

“Her Celtic Irish wit and human understanding and handling of the personality foibles of many different people has been a unique and joyful strength much admired by us all,” continued Nicholls, to murmurs of agreement from the guests, “including the six directors and associate vice-presidents of research, whom she also trained on the job at the same time as she trained the ORA staff,” he added with a twinkle in his eye.

Swatman, “in her own inimitable way”, ensured that York’s Senate Committee on Research (SCOR) ran as an effective committee over many years, despite her having to “endure many different faculty member Chairs, who exhibited a broad spectrum of abilities,” said Nicholls, as cheers of agreement broke out among those assembled. Swatman “ran the show and grew the office”, often staying late at night and coming in on weekends to ensure that the heavy demands of the office were met, he said. “Many faculty members would have been submerged in the administrivia of grants had it not been for her sage advice.”

After providing an encapsulated history of Swatman’s time at York, Nicholls closed on a more personal note. “Thanks to Noli for all she has done to support my research, and the smooth lubricating of its funding, for more than 30 years.”

Judy Hellman’s tribute

Judy Hellman spoke “not just as Noli’s friend, but as an ordinary faculty member – rather than an administrator – basically someone who has known Noli as an applicant for grants and similar scholarly aspirations. Moreover, if Ralph Nicholls speaks, as he says, as a representative of the Faculty of Pure & Applied Science, then I come as a representative of the impure and inapplicable sciences,” she said to hoots of laughter.

Right: Judy Hellman delivering her side-splitting tribute

Hellman went on as she had begun, punctuating her talk with bursts of humour and kind words, and a moving farewell. She spoke of Swatman’s love of lighting votive candles to say a prayer for various colleagues. “If it comes to Noli’s attention that you have a personal health crisis, as occurred to me, or a family crisis, or if you are an entering faculty member, Noli will go off and quietly light a candle for you and say a prayer…. She does this even when she is in Mexico on holiday, and during Semana Santa, Easter Week, Noli is a well known figure among the women who sell votive candles outside the Church of Santa Maria de los Remedios.

“Last May, when I was on a trip to Brittany, France and accessing my e-mail from an Internet café, I received news from Noli that she was stepping down. I was quite shocked and dismayed, but I was happy, too, because I thought Trevor and Noli would be able to go off and do the things they’d long wanted to do.”

Still reeling from the surprise of the news, Hellman said she stumbled out of the café and into a “great cathedral that was strategically placed directly across the square”. “Some of you may know that I am not a Catholic – I am not even a lapsed Catholic,” she said as people laughed loudly, “but I found myself at the foot of a statue of Saint Yves, a great, 15th-century saint to the people in the town of Treguier. Maybe it was just an accident, but I was standing at the foot of this small, carved figure who is a saint – and I thought, ‘This person looks remarkably like Noli!’”

As guests recovered from their almost non-stop laughter, Hellman continued: “And then I read a description of the attributes of Saint Yves, and this was just astonishing: ‘Saint Yves performed a few miracles here and there. He was essentially, however, known for the following characteristics: He was always kind to people and he was always encouraging; and he uplifted the poor and miserable.’

“I thought, ‘This cannot be an accident that he not only looks like Noli but shares these traits. So I looked around to see how others in the church went about buying a candle, I pulled a euro out of my pocket and put it in a little box that seemed to be there for this purpose, and then lit a candle. And I appealed to Saint Yves with a request that l know you all would have made under the same circumstances: ‘May Noli and Trevor have wonderful, wonderful years of retirement together; may they continue to see all of us; and may their lives be full of health and happiness with their children.’”

William Found’s letter

Next, MacDonald read a letter from William Found (right), who was not able to attend. Found was York’s academic director of research administration at York in the 1970s, soon after Swatman arrived. In those days, the ORA had a small staff and, as Nicholls said in his speech, “was starting to get to grips with the institutional administrivia rightly associated with research, and with the people and the internal and external issues involved.”

Found’s letter said in part, “Few at York would realize the immense impact that you have had on our individual research successes and on the University’s continuing efforts to find research resources and, to administer them wisely and to make our research presence known in the outside world.

“You and I worked together in ORA during the formative stages in York’s research development…. With a total staff of four, we had to stimulate research activity, process all the research applications, process all the University’s policies and procedures related to research, in concert with the many wonderful members of SCOR, oversee the organized research units, codify everything in official documents and constantly remind those beyond York that this was a serious research University.

Found continued: “We had no AVP, no VP research, not even a VP academic. All matters relating to research were handled by the ORA. And you were the driving, calm and cheerful staff administrator who made things happen and who watched as the University’s funding and successes continued to grow year after year.

“I know of no one who’s made a greater contribution to York’s institutional development. Many, many thanks,” Found then ended his letter saying that he was just one of countless faculty members indebted to Swatman for her efficient, accurate and innovative approaches to securing research funds.

Found is also a former VP academic affairs (1979-1985) and former acting president of York University (1984).

The ‘Unholy Trinity’

Marilyn Di Florio, administrative officer, and Fazyah Mohammed and Gisela Birmingham, administrative assistants, all in the Office of Research Services, were referred to as the “Unholy Trinity” by Swatman in her farewell speech.

Right, from left to right: Gisela Birmingham, Marilyn Di Florio and Fazyah Mohammed

Birmingham, a colleague of Swatman’s for almost 15 years, said, “Working with Noli has been inspiring and enjoyable. She engaged us and she challenged us to do our best, with a rare combination of finesse, laughter, kindness and rigorous sense of duty. Her love and commitment to the faculty has always been abundantly evident. I’ll miss her – and the summer roses from her garden, which graced our office every summer.”

Di Florio had this to say about the person with whom she has worked for close to 17 years: “It has been my good fortune to have worked with Noli for so many years. Sometimes a task master, but always compassionate and kind, sometimes tough, but always fair, she created the excellent reputation for which this office is known. Her sense of humour and great wit led us through many changes and difficult times. I wish her a healthy and happy retirement.”

Fazyah Mohammed, who has worked with Swatman for 14 years, commented: “It was a pleasure working with Noli. She is one of the kindest and most humane persons that I have ever had the privilege to know. I would like to thank Noli for all the advice, laughter and for affording us the opportunity to experience Irish culture over the years.”

More about Noli Swatman

“It’s been the job of a lifetime,” said Swatman of her time at York. “If I had planned my career I could not have chosen anything better. But I did not plan it. Like McCawber of David Copperfield fame, I appear to have lived my life just seeing ‘what turned up’ – and it has served me well.”

Swatman arrived in Canada in 1962 from London, where she and her husband had met and married. She worked first for the Toronto law firm Osler, Hoskin and Harcourt. “Later, I decided to try for a job at York, since I was living in this area and thought it would be a good place to work.

“In 1969, I was interviewed by Harry Arthurs (left) [former dean of York’s Osgoode Hall Law School, 1972-1977, and president of York,1985-1992], took an instant liking to Harry and the law school – I felt I was home, so took the job and worked there with Harry for a year or so.”

Swatman left York for a while after she had her first daughter, Deidre, then began at York in research administration in 1976, where she has remained until now, working in various capacities.

Right: Dezsö Horváth, dean of York’s Schulich School of Business, with Noli Swatman

Now Swatman is looking forward to travelling to England for a reunion with Irish school friends – whom she has not seen since 1957 – while her husband meets up with his classmates from Darjeeling, India. Upon her return and until September, she will be hard at work making bridesmaids’ outfits for her daughter Carrie’s upcoming wedding.