One of Merton’s longest-serving members of staff – and the longest-serving female member – Lesley Walsh, Sub-Warden’s Secretary, will retire this summer after more than three decades’ service.
Lesley was born and raised in Oxford and prior to starting her journey at Merton, worked in a variety of administrative roles including as a Junior Bursary Clerk at St Peter’s College, Administrator at Telsec Instruments, and Secretary to the Directors of Austin Rover Cowley Production Engineering. Lesley joined Merton on 16 November 1987, at the age of 32, as Secretary in the Warden’s Office.
Back in 1987 the Warden’s Office was very different. It looked after all of the governance of the College, academic and scholarship recruitment, fundraising and maintenance of the alumni database. In 1987 the college employed around 11 office-based staff and two full time-College Officers, namely the Estates Bursar and the Domestic Bursar. Other College Officer posts were mainly held by Tutorial Fellows. The Fellowship consisted of 48 Governing Body, nine Emeritus and 19 Honorary Fellows.
How times have changed! Lesley has seen immense transformations over the years, not only with the addition of various new buildings to the Merton portfolio, but also with the organisation and expansion in the number of Fellows and staff. The college now employs around 35 office-based staff, and has a Fellowship consisting of eight categories (Governing Body, Emeritus, Supernumerary, Bodley, Honorary, Wyliot, Sir Henry Savile, and Julia de Lacy Mann) with the Fellowship totalling 172. There are various individual departments now dealing with the majority of the work that was handled solely by the Warden’s Office back in the 1980s–1990s.
Over the last 33 years, Lesley has worked alongside four Wardens, one Acting Warden, 18 Sub-Wardens and numerous College Officers and colleagues, and administered just shy of 300 Governing Body meetings. The governance function of the College could not have operated as smoothly and successfully as it has without Lesley’s attention to detail, impeccable record-keeping, and dedication; she is commonly regarded as a fountain of knowledge and the ‘go-to’ person for sources of information.
In her spare time Lesley has always been an avid gardener and is looking forward to spending more time on her allotment, as well as looking after her four grandchildren.
Lesley says, "You know when it’s time to retire when a former undergraduate of the college becomes the Warden."
The many Sub-Wardens Lesley has worked with over the years all remember her with affection and admiration:
“Wonderfully dependable, with a dry sense of humour and the perfect understanding of what Sub-Wardens require, very often before Sub-Wardens know what they require.”
Philip Waller, Sub-Warden 2000-2002
“Lesley was a joy to work with. Unflappable, absolutely reliable, big-hearted and with a carefully hidden but naughty sense of humour. She brought something very special to the Warden’s Office.”
Professor Robert Gildea, Sub-Warden 2004-2006
“It was a great pleasure to work with Lesley in my stint as Sub-Warden, and she really provided the continuity and institutional memory that is not easy to maintain when the Sub-Warden changes identity every two years. We went through the process together of changing the college statutes during my time in office – something that required Privy Council approval, and a rare occurrence in Merton’s history! I always used to drop into the office to see Lesley after lunch, and enjoyed a nice chat putting the world to rights as well as sorting out our business efficiently.”
Professor Tim Softley, Sub-Warden 2006-2008
“During my period as Sub-Warden, Lesley was one of my strongest supports, helping me to compile and order Governing Body papers and those for the Wardenship election that I was then chairing. She was always unfailingly courteous and efficient, and a spirit of good humour reigned in the office despite the many demands of day-to-day business. She made my task much easier and I remain very grateful for her contribution. She has served the College exceptionally well over the years and has been a valued member of our community. I wish her a happy and prosperous retirement.”
Professor Richard McCabe, Sub-Warden 2008-2010
“I found Lesley to be a wonderful secretary to the Sub-Warden. She had all the key attributes needed for the job. She was unfailingly positive and superhumanly unflappable. She had an encyclopaedic knowledge of the Governing Body’s business and she had a welcomingly warm office. I could not have done the job without her, and I think other Sub-Wardens would say the same.”
Professor Steve Gunn, Sub-Warden 2010-2012
“Sub-Wardens come and go every two years, unlike their secretaries. So when I took over from Steve Gunn, Lesley had been at Merton even before I had arrived 20 years earlier, and it was clear from the outset that she would be a most valuable source of information and advice on all sorts of matter. And so she was! In return I would help stuff the papers for the College meeting into their envelopes and carrying the 70-odd packages to the Lodge on those (unfortunately not infrequent) occasions when urgent papers arrived late. I wish her all the best for her retirement.”
Professor Ulrike Tillmann, Sub-Warden 2012-2014
“Lesley has been a peerless supporter of Merton, which I saw first-hand. As every Sub-Warden would testify, without her institutional memory we would have all struggled given the brevity of Governing Body minutes. She will be greatly missed for many reasons, in particular she brought the common sense of the town into the environment of the gown.”
Professor David Paterson, Sub-Warden 2014-2016
“I find it impossible to imagine Merton without Lesley’s presence. I hope someone has worked out how to extract all those decades of procedural knowledge from her brain, if not she will need to change her phone number as College will continue to need her for the foreseeable future! Lesley was my lifeline when I was Sub-Warden. I can admit now that I found the ‘mechanisms’ involved in College committees totally opaque and without her to guide me I hate to think what could have happened. She always gently but firmly kept me on track. How she kept her cool sometimes amazed me, but then again I think she has seen it all! Amid all that common sense Lesley is also a really generous spirit, as attested by her sneaking bars of chocolate into my papers when I was heading to another long and fraught election meeting! I miss those quiet moments of reflection sitting in her window seat. It is now time for her to concentrate on herself and her family, and to stopping looking after us.”
Professor Judith Armitage, Sub-Warden 2016-2018
“Lesley is just wonderful. As a Sub-Warden you couldn’t ask for anyone better to work alongside. Her knowledge, expertise and kindness made her an absolute joy to work with. The College is very lucky to have had her.”
Professor Jenny Payne, Sub-Warden 2018-2020
Thinking of the first day you walked through the Merton Lodge arch as a new employee, what was your first impression?
I was in awe of the incredibly beautiful ancient buildings, and it felt very welcoming.
Do you have a particular memory that stands out from your time at Merton?
Being invited to the Installation Ceremony and lunch of the current Warden along with the Warden’s PA. It was the first time staff members had been invited to attend.
Tell us something about yourself that we would not know.
I’m a keen rugby fan and do a lot of work for a local rugby club in various roles, including sometimes cooking hot meals for up to 100 very hungry rugby players; I can assure you this is no mean feat!
What tips would you give your younger self to prepare for the career you have achieved?
I genuinely believe that keeping a cool, calm and collected head would get you through any difficult situation. And if you can’t manage that, give the impression that you are! I’m a firm believer of ‘keep calm and carry on’.
Describe Merton in three words.
Beauty, serenity, community.