Ringing in the bucks and strange stories

By Dasha Vinogradsky

U of C Telefund employee Roswell Thomas, a first-year in the College, recently learned that some University alumni have a lot in common with current members of Hitchcock Hall.

The alumnus “kept me on the phone for a half an hour talking about the Lord of the Rings,” Thomas said. Then, evidently overflowing with benevolence—or Hobbit pride—the alumnus offered to take Thomas and 15 of his friends on a trip to New Zealand, where the Oscar-winning movie was filmed.

Thomas is not alone among Telefund workers to have a conversation with an alumnus that significantly departs from the stated goals of the program: asking for donations, checking with graduates, and updating records. Indeed, it turns out that the primary purpose of the Telefund is to raise money for the College Central Annual Fund—not to discuss the wonders of Tolkien.

Last year the Telefund, which has its phone bank in the basement of Alumni House, brought in about 12,000 pledges amounting to around $1.2 million, said Telefund assistant director Laurel Lindemann.

Experienced Telefund workers learn to work peripheral topics into their requests for donations. First-year Charles Stephen Thompson, who has worked at the Telefund since fall quarter, said older alumni commonly use the phone call as an opportunity to reflect nostalgically about their time on the quads.

“They are more apt to talk to you and give you money,” Thompson said. “The longest time I’ve been on a call is 39 minutes, and it was a really great call because they were talking about what college was like when they were here. They like reminiscing about the University.”

Thompson said one alumnus told him about race riots that occurred during the 1950s, while another who graduated in the 1960s began telling a story about “people outside the University tried to get into the Ball at Ida Noyes. It was ridiculous, and the University had to cancel it.”

Yet another alumnus, lamenting the University’s unabashed promotion of academics over athletics, reflected on “how we used to be a sports powerhouse,” Thompson said.

Despite the allure of getting paid for reminiscing with alumni—Telefund workers earn $9.50 an hour—the job is certainly not for everyone.

“ get a lot of rejection; they get a lot of people who yell at them,” Lindemann said. “Even though they’re not personally responsible for whatever the alum’s concerns are, they’ll feel the brunt of it.”

Indeed, Thomas said one alumnus called the U of C a place for “pathetic people” and then slammed down the phone—without first offering a donation.

But penny-pinching alumni should know that the Telefund has a humanitarian mission as well—almost. While the Telefund does call the parents of first-year students to make sure that their child has successfully made the transition to college, it also invites parents to contribute to the aptly named “Parent’s Fund.”

Some parents seize the opportunity to question their student callers about the finer points of the Chicago experience. Third-year Joe Mulligan said he once called a student’s mother for a donation and ended up discussing dorm life.

“At the end of the conversation, she asked what year I was,” Mulligan said. “I told her I was a third-year.” It turned out her son was in the process of deciding where to live for his third year, and she wanted to know if it is “normal” for third-years to stay in the dorms. “So I gave her my thoughts,” Mulligan said.