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Interview of Susan Blaeser by Rich Peppin on June 2, 2013,
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA,
For multiple citations, "AIP" is the preferred abbreviation for the location.
In this interview, Rich Peppin speaks with Susan Blaeser about her time working for the Acoustical Society of America (ASA), where she served as Standards Manager for the ASA Committee on Standards (COS). Blaeser begins by recounting her childhood in New York City and Long Island. She began college at Nassau Community College and completed her degree at Stony Brook University. Upon graduation, Blaeser went to work at the Department of Social Services of Nassau County, where she worked for 13 years. Before joining the team at ASA, she also worked as a village clerk treasurer for a small village in Nassau County. Blaeser describes applying to and accepting the job at ASA and how she has enjoyed her work there. She also speaks about serving as a representative and secretary at ISO (International Organization for Standardization) meetings.
Okay. So today is June 2, 2013, and I’m with Susan Blaeser. We’re doing an oral history. We’re at the Palais des congrès in Montréal. Okay. So I’m Rich Peppin with Susan Blaeser. So first we have to ask about your youth. Where were you born?
You weren’t kidding when you said we were only going to get to the fourth grade!
Yeah, yeah. [Laughs] Where were you born?
Yes, in Flushing.
In Flushing. Okay. I was from Elmhurst. Do you want to say when or not? You don’t have to.
1950. Born 1950. What did your parents do?
My father sold steel, and my mother was a homemaker when I was young. They moved to Long Island when Levitt began to develop the Levitt houses. So we moved to Westbury and I grew up there.
Where did you go to high school? In Westbury?
I went to Clarke in East Meadow, which is…We were in Westbury Post Office East Meadow School District, if that means anything.
Okay. Did your parents have education?
Not…No. Neither of them had graduated college. They both had a small amount.
Are there other people in your family, brothers and sisters?
I have one sister, and she’s younger. She’s a teacher.
What’s her name?
What was your maiden name?
Bristol? [Yes.] B-r-i-s-t-o-l? [Yes.] Okay. All right, I’m going to stop for now. [Break] Did you have any people, relatives or teachers or any that influenced what you might do in the future?
Well, I’m sure that yes, obviously. My grandfather was a dentist, and my grandmother was a nurse, so I think that my parents, even though they themselves didn’t go to college, they felt that it was important for us to go to college. That was a very important goal for them right from when we were very young. They didn’t have too much money, but they worked toward that as their goal.
Was it on your mother’s or father’s side, your grandparents?
My father’s parents, yeah. My mother’s father left school after eighth grade. He had the most wonderful eighth grade diploma because he was qualified for everything from accounting to zoology, and it spelled it all out. [Laughs]
Were your parents and grandparents born in the United States, too?
All my grandparents were born in the United States, yes.
So back pretty far. [Yes.] That’s pretty good. Real American.
Real American! [Laughs]
Good. Okay. So you and your sister expected to go to college.
Right, mm-hmm [yes].
Because that was like…
That was just an expectation.
That was the way it worked, right.
And it was pretty uncommon in our age. [Right.] Not everybody expected to send daughters to college.
So where did you go?
First I went to community college.
I went to Nassau Community College.
Nassau Community, mm-hmm [yes].
And then I went to Stony Brook and finished there. I majored in English and sociology, a very odd combination.
Two years in Nassau and two years in Stony Brook.
Right. Yes. Then when I came out of college, I went to work for the Department of Social Services.
Of Nassau County. I worked there for 13 years, something like that.
Wow, a long time.
Yes. Then I had my kids—
Well, wait. You must have gotten married at some point.
Yeah, I got married!
When was that? Soon out of college?
Yeah. Actually right out of college, yeah. I was just barely…just shy of 22.
Were you dating him in college?
In college, yes, yes.
What’s his name?
Larry. So we’ve been married since 1972.
Wow. That’s amazing!
That’s amazing. What does Larry do?
He’s a computer programmer. He works for Honeywell.
So then you had your first child when?
In 1979. I was still working at Social Service then. I took a little leave; then I went back. Then my second son was born in 1985, and at that point I stopped working for a few years. Then when I went back, I went back to something entirely different. I became a village clerk treasurer.
In a small village in Nassau County.
So I did that for about ten years.
Before you go, what were your sons’ names, first and second?
Oh. My first son is named Jim, and he’s now married and he is about to next month have twins. So those will be our first grandchildren. My second son is named Andrew, and he is getting close to completing his PhD at Brown in…Well, he’s in the Physics Department, but his specialty is something called optogenetics, which I can’t begin to tell you what it is.
Yeah, yeah. Probably very important.
Yeah, let’s hope so! [Laughter] Let’s hope there are jobs at the end of that tunnel!
Right. So okay. So you were a clerk in…
Clerk treasurer, right. What town was it?
The village of Thomaston, which is one of the small villages in Great Neck. The village clerk is sort of the administrator of the whole thing.
I see, the whole thing. I used to go to Great Neck on dates because there was a movie there. I used to drive from Elmhurst to Great Neck. When I drove. Okay. In school, so it was mostly English, right? That was your major.
Mm-hmm [yes], right.
Was there anything special? Did you get anything out of the program to make you think about going into teaching or something an English person would do?
No, I never had any desire to teach. I had kind of a thought at first that I might pursue higher degree in English, and in fact, I went to Queens College and took a few courses. But you know, it just seemed impractical as a career for me at the time with my marriage.
And also you’re a relatively young mother and married.
Yeah. Well, I wasn’t a mother then, but I was—
Yeah, not that. Right.
Yeah. But that was my goal, was to go on and have the kids and all. But during the time that I was not working, during those couple of years when I was home with Andy and Jimmy, I did go and I took some courses in accounting and computer programming to get an idea of other fields.
Other things, right.
That sort of led me into that other next job as the clerk treasurer. So I did that for about ten years.
That’s a pretty long time, too. [Yes.] Was it interesting or just a routine?
It was interesting and fun, and, you know, it was a public service type of job, so it was very interesting, always something different. So I enjoyed that. Then I came here. I came to ASA.
Right from there.
Yeah. No. No, I take that back. I take that back.
No. You were some—
I went to a charity. I worked for three or three and a half years as a Managing Director of a charity that did food rescue.
What was it called?
Highland Harvest. And you didn’t like it and you applied? How did you decide to go to ASA?
No, I liked it. I liked it. It was…What am I going to say? I liked it. I liked the place; I liked the work we did. I just felt it was a good time to move on. ASA put a little mysterious ad in the News Day, our local paper. It didn’t say really anything except that they were looking for some sort of a generic manager, and so I—It just said scientific society. It didn’t even say ASA.
So somehow I applied and got the job.
Now Avril Brenig was working at the time?
Right. Avril was the standards manager for, I don’t know, 28 years or something before.
Yeah, for a long time.
And she was the only one who had ever held that job.
Do you know if she quit or had some problem?
She…I don’t really know. I mean I didn’t know her and I had very little interaction with her. But she did retire after 28 years. I don’t know what she went to. So she moved on. I had only an extremely small amount of overlap with her. So to some extent, I was sort of thrown in the deep end.
Right. Well, you took this job as like a manager not even knowing anything about standards, right?
Not knowing anything about standards or acoustics.
Or acoustics or anything.
Yeah. At my interview, I said to the committee, “Well, I don’t even know what a decibel is.” So Dan Johnson said, “Don’t worry. We’ll know what that is. You worry about the rest.” So it worked out okay, I guess.
Yeah. So you took the job without knowing anything. [Right.] How did you get to be so proficient then at [unintelligible]?
Well, I mean I have to thank Dan. Dan spent a lot of time on the phone with me every day helping me learn things. Another thing that ASA did was they hired Leif Nielsen from Denmark to come over and teach me. Leif came and spent a week in the office. The office at that time was on Wall Street, the Standards Office. Leif and his wife Lotta [?] came, and Lotta was just supposed to be on vacation, but she ended up spending the whole day every day in the office. They taught me and the staff what we needed to know to do the international part. I took some classes from ANSI and they taught me some things about the national part, and then it was just a question of pulling the pieces together.
Like immersion into it and putting it together. Wow. So you didn’t go to graduate school or anything, just undergraduate. [Right.] Except for these courses, these computer courses.
Just a few courses, yeah.
Okay. All right, this doesn’t matter. This stuff doesn’t matter. A lot of copies of the same thing. Yeah. We might as well just stick with…This is mostly for people like Leo Beranek. So it doesn’t really apply.
That’s why I said I didn’t… [Laughter]
All right. Here are some general questions.
And I hope this isn’t my exit interview.
I said I hope this isn’t my exit interview. [Laughter] “Well Susan, it’s been nice knowing you.”
Yeah. No. Actually, I think you’re doing an incredible job.
And everybody does. I mean you’re very well liked there. It would be horrible if something happened, but I don’t think anything will happen. I mean it seems to be going very smoothly, the whole standards thing.
Right now I think we’re at an okay pace, yeah.
Do you worry at all about…I mean we talk about in the ASACOS about funding and stuff. Is that an issue?
Oh, I worry about it all the time.
In a personal way for your job?
Oh yeah. Yeah. Well, not so much for my job, although I mean I think it’s a responsibility. You know, we have employees who obviously are expecting to get paid, and so if we fail to keep the funding up and had to let the employees go, or me, it would be really a bad thing for them. So I do feel a responsibility for that. But I worry a lot about the funding and about keeping the wheels going.
Right. Is there pressure from ASA in any way?
You know, a little. I think there’s an expectation that we’re going to try to do something. For instance, this year with sequester we’re running into some…
Oh, yeah. Big time. I can imagine. Wow. All right. So let me ask a couple of these general questions. Actually, as far as ASA goes, this is like the first and only professional society you worked in. [Right.] Right. Do you interact with other ASA people, Elaine and Charles or anything?
I do. Yeah. Of course, Charles is my boss, or is one of my—I have sort of what they call a matrix management, and so I report to Paul and to Charles, primarily to Paul, but Charles for administrative things and for things that are overarching to ASA. I’m not in the same office as Elaine, but yes, I interact with her as matters arise.
Right. Do you have just like a little office or an office in an office park or something?
It’s a little office, yeah. We’re about a mile away from where Elaine is. It looks now like there’s an opportunity for us to co-locate at—
You mean if there’s a new executive director?
Well regardless, AIP’s lease…ASA headquarters sublets from AIP, and AIP’s lease terminates next May. When we set up our lease, we set it up to terminate at the same time.
So AIP is just now at the point of they have picked a building. They’re finalizing negotiations, and I think the executive council will be talking about it.
Will it be in Long Island, the same roughly?
Yes. It will be a half a mile from where they are now.
Oh good. Good. That’s good for everybody who works there.
Yeah. Right, right.
It could be horrible. Okay. Do you know when you got the job, whether there were other candidates?
There were. They had a search committee of about six or seven people, and they called me up. You know, AIP handles HR services for ASA, and so Terry Braun, who’s the, I don’t know, vice president and head of HR at AIP, called me up and said, “You’re being considered for this job. Would you come for an interview?” and gave me the date. It was a Wednesday, and it was the Wednesday of the middle of the week that my husband and I were going to be in Arizona.
So it wasn’t even like you could change the day a little bit. It was the middle. I said, “Well, I really can’t do anything about that,” and she said, “Oh, don’t worry. They’ll come back.” I said, “Look. What do you mean, they’ll come back?” and she said, “Well, we’re bringing in a search committee from all over, and they’ll just have to come back to meet you.” I was a little surprised, and I said, “Why?” She said, “Well, you’re my best candidate.”
So we rescheduled, and they did mostly all come back. Ironically, Charles and Paul weren’t there. I’m not sure if Paul was on the search committee at that time. Dan was, and Dan came back.
Dan was. Probably Paul, but—
Paul might not have been, but Charles was. But he couldn’t come back. He had some sort of conflict, so he couldn’t come back. Gilles Daigle [?] was and…gee, I don’t even remember. Elaine. So we had a group of people, and they did come back.
So were you looking forward to the job like you really wanted to get it or…?
Oh, sure! At that point I’d had a really good interview with Terry on the phone, and it sounded interesting. She explained to me that they were kind of doing it a little secretively because Avril had some concerns that if her staff knew that she was leaving that they might fear that their jobs were out the door.
Did you take over her staff?
I did initially. Her staff really—I’m not sure why she was worried about this because her staff really were people who were essentially temps. As I said, the office was downtown Manhattan, and ASA’s goal was to move it. ASA’s goal at that time was to co-locate with Elaine at an AIP office, but AIP had a huge staff at that time and they did not have any space at the inn. So Kathy Harris said, “Well, then just find something nearby,” so that’s what we did. We found something about a mile away.
And that’s actually good for you because you lived out there, too.
Yes. Actually, it’s the town I live in. I live in Melville, so it’s very good for me.
Oh, that’s great. That’s great. Okay, good. Yeah. Let me ask…These are like sort of personal questions. But when you met Larry, he was at school with you?
He was, yeah. He was also in college, and he was just sort of not sure what he was doing, either. Ultimately, he went and got a master’s in social work, and he did that for a few years, but—
Was he on your level or was he a year or two ahead of you?
He’s a year older than I am, but he was…
Graduated at the same time?
At that time we—He actually graduated a semester after me.
Did he get his master’s at Stony Brook?
No. He got it at Adelphi. You know, they’re the big social work school around. So he got his master’s in social work, and then after a few years, he got tired of that and he learned to be a computer programmer. He’s done that now for…I don’t know.
Is he on his own or is he working—
He works for Honeywell now. He was on his own for about 20 years, and then he went to work for Honeywell 11 years ago—in fact, I think 11 years ago tomorrow.
Wow. Now Grumman is out there, isn’t it? Or it was.
Yeah, what’s left of Grumman.
Really? [Yes.] Yeah, yeah. Fairchild, too.
Yeah. I don’t even know if Fairchild still exists.
Yeah. I was applying for jobs in ‘62 or so at his place. So it was a big high-tech thing.
Oh, it was—At that time, Long Island was really the center of all these government contracts. There was Grumman, Sperry…
Yeah, Sperry [unintelligible], right.
Yeah. General Dynamics was there.
That’s right. It’s amazing.
There was a huge industrial base there. Now all there is is retail. [Laughter]
Right. Right. Okay. Well, some of these don’t even make any sense. Research work. I don’t have to worry about that. Skipping these.
Okay. Oh see, we’re getting right to the end.
Yeah, we’re going to be almost finished. Well, there’s nothing on here I think that would be really useful. So just to go back, do you find like the standards managing job is a good one? Do you like it?
I do. I love it. I love…For me, it’s a great job. I’m very independent. I work independently. I am supported by and surrounded by great people like you and other people who—
Yeah. She’s just saying that.
[Laughs] Other people who serve as committee chairs, as working group chairs, and volunteer for working groups. I’m always around smart people, and I’m always hearing interesting new things. I don’t always understand them, but I’m always fascinated by them.
Yeah, but you can manage them pretty well.
It’s like herding cats, you know? You just know it’s trying to get people to do the things they need to do in the timeline.
And you get to travel, right?
Travel is a mixed bag, you know. It has some nice elements, but it’s just, you know, after a little while travel is a little [overlapping voices].
Do you have…You know, I know what you do at ASA meetings more or less. But at ISO meetings, is it the same thing? Do you have a lot of work to do before and during it?
At ISO meetings, I have a tremendous amount of work to do before and during. I’m busy every minute during the ISO meetings because I’m the secretary for the main committee, and then I try to sit in on…It’s not possible to sit in on all of them. I might have three working groups meeting simultaneously. But I try to sit in on the ones I think are, you know, having some struggle or that something’s wrong, and I try to sit in on new working groups and just see what they’re on.
Right. I remember. I think it might have been your first meeting, ISO in Vienna.
Yes, it was my first meeting.
I was in there, too [unintelligible].
Yeah. Yeah, thank you. I’m glad you were because you were there, and I was very worried because in that committee, SC 1, there was no U.S. representation.
And ANSI told me that if I couldn’t find a U.S. representative that it would have to be me. [Laughs] So fortunately you stepped up and said, “Oh, I’ll do it!”
Yeah. I don’t know how come I came to that. I never went to another one. Right.
I never knew why you came to that meeting, either.
Well, I think I was chair of S 2 then. Maybe. I don’t know why.
Well, it was good you did.
It was good, and they had a vegetarian restaurant right there. All right. What else? I can’t—It’s kind of a short interview. I hate it to be that short. We know about that. We know from the very beginning you’ve been living in America and your ancestors are American. It’s incredible.
I’ve always lived in New York.
Well, do you have anything you want to add? This will be a permanent record, and maybe you want to add something about your…I don’t know. I can’t think of anything.
Mostly I would say that this has been a great job for me. I love it very much. I love the people I work with. I love that it’s interesting work all the time, and it’s interesting for my…You know, I have two staff members who work with us, and although they are not involved as much with meeting the numbers and so on, they still—
Sometimes, but not so much. But they also find it very interesting and they get to be involved with that they never would have been otherwise. In another job, secretarial job, they would not be doing this, so it’s been—
Right. I know. I mean from my point of view as sort of a customer of yours, you really keep me on track with a lot of things, and you must do that to everybody…
I assess it.
…get them on track because—
My specialty is badgering people.
Yeah. It’s amazing that you can—I’m sure they don’t remember all of it, but you have it written down somewhere what has to get done and when it has to get done. It’s pretty good. Well, all right. At least for now, let’s stop. Maybe we can think of things after and we can do this again. It’s 4:30 in Montréal, and this is Rich Peppin and Susan Blaeser. We’ll stop this oral interview for now.
[End of recording]