NU CELEBRATES JEAN YALESeptember 5, 2014
By Kalyn Kahler
Any Wildcats fan who has attended a special function hosted by the Northwestern Gridiron Network, or any other arm of the Northwestern Athletics department, likely was greeted at the door and pointed in the right direction by a smiling Jean Yale.
Yale, NU’s donor relations and special events coordinator, has been a fixture in the Wildcats community since 1957 when she graduated with a degree in education. Never straying far from campus after graduation, Yale was a teacher in Winnetka and continued to cheer on the Wildcats as her oldest son, John, played linebacker for the ‘Cats in the 1980s. In 1992, it was John who suggested to his mother that she explore an opportunity working for the Wildcats.
Twenty-two years later, Yale is retiring from her position, leaving behind a development team—which now consists of 11 full-time staffers—that looks much different than the one she joined in 1992.
“I’ve watched this fabulous growth,” Yale says from her office in Anderson Hall, where she smiles and waves at everyone who passes by. “My job now, it wasn’t a job [when I began], it was created as our program became more successful.”
Yale has loved promoting the achievements of Northwestern student-athletes largely because she’s been a sports fan all her life. Her passion for athletics began when she was a young girl growing up in South Bend, Ind.
“I had a bachelor uncle who didn’t have children and he took my sister and I to everything at Notre Dame: football, basketball, boxing, all kinds of sports,” Yale says. “I started loving sports at a very young age.”
That affinity for athletics continued throughout her adult life—Yale still says she reads the sports pages before the rest of the newspaper each morning—and, when the time came to look for part-time work after her four children were grown, made a position with the Wildcats a perfect fit.
Each year, Yale has regularly organized more than 40 NU-sponsored functions, most notably the annual Hall of Fame ceremonies and, her personal favorite, the Senior Recognition and N Club Induction Banquet each June. “I just think watching the young people as they mature and graduate and go on to the next phases in their lives is fabulous,” she says.
Yale has been present at every bowl game the Wildcats have played in her tenure and often wears a special pendant commemorating NU’s 2013 Gator Bowl victory—a gift from Pat Fitzgerald and the football program—around her neck. Coach Fitz is the first to point out that Yale’s hard work organizing weekly and annual NGN events makes her as much a part of the Wildcats team as any player on the roster.
“Jean Yale has been the backbone of our athletic department and of our football program’s development efforts for over two decades,” Fitzgerald said. “She’s touched the lives of thousands of student-athletes and their families and has played a huge role in building this incredible community we call the Northwestern Football Family. There’s no doubt she’ll be missed but we’re all so thankful for her contributions to our program.”
In the last few months leading up to her retirement, Yale has shifted from the planner of special events to the guest of honor, a slightly unwelcome change for the modest Yale. “I like working behind the desk, I don’t like to talk,” she says. “I prefer getting the speakers and greeting people than having to speak myself.”
While that may be true, Yale has many tales from her time with the Wildcats. She’s been the face on the front lines for Northwestern in times of great exuberance, like a 640-person banquet during NU’s trip to the 1996 Rose Bowl, and times of sorrow, as when the campus gathered to remember former head coach Randy Walker upon his passing in 2006. She also has grown close to many Northwestern student-athletes and their families.
“I’ll never forget one year in the mid-’90’s when Pat Fitzgerald’s mother and father bought me a corsage for a football banquet,” Yale said. “No one else has ever done that since I’ve been here. Moments like that are what have made my time here so special.
“I have a wonderful relationship with donors,” she continued. “That’s one thing I will miss. I made a lot of good friends by seeing them at football and basketball games. They’ve been special friends in my life.”
For Yale, nothing comes more naturally than loving and supporting the Northwestern Athletics community, which she will continue to do even in her retirement. Yale will remain a bright presence on campus, joining her family for their weekly football tailgates, and finding her usual spots to cheer on the ‘Cats—from Ryan Field’s Stadium Club for football games and from the third row on the floor at Welsh-Ryan Arena for basketball games.Asked if she was prepared for her Friday address to the Wildcats, which falls under the duties of an honorary captain, Yale said: “I think it will be easy, because I’ll start with number one, how much I love this place, which is pretty obvious from what I’ve done here. It’s the best 22 years I have ever had and I am so glad that I came here when I did.”