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Longtime Athletics Administration Assistant Passes Away

Longtime Athletics Administration Assistant Passes AwayPhyllis M. Byrne, former Athletics Department administrator best known for preserving Jumbo's ashes, passes away at 83.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [04.27.09] Phyllis M. Byrne, who worked in the Tufts University Athletics Department for 30 years from 1959-89, passed away on Apr. 19 at the age of 83.

Called the "quarterback" of the department in a Boston Globe article written upon her retirement, Mrs. Byrne's efforts in support of Tufts Athletics earned her a reputation nearly as legendary as any of the University's star athletes and coaches.

Mrs. Byrne provided chief administrative support for the director of the department by implementing budgetary, personnel and accounting procedures. She had administrative responsibilities to all full-time and part-time employees, along with the student participants. Rocky Carzo, Tufts Athletics Director from 1973-99 and now the Athletics Director Emeritus, said in the Globe article from July 1989, "I'm the boss, but Phyllis knows who is where, what is where and there have been times when I feel I've been working for her."

Mrs. Byrne is best known at Tufts for preserving the memory of Jumbo the elephant, Tufts' mascot. Jumbo, the star attraction of the Barnum & Bailey Circus in the 1880's, was hit by a train and killed in 1885. P.T. Barnum, a Tufts trustee, donated Jumbos' stuffed remains to the University. From 1889 to 1975, Jumbo stood in Barnum Hall on campus as a source of inspiration to Tufts students. When a fire burned down Barnum Hall, Mrs. Byrne reacted quickly to ensure that Jumbo's physical presence on campus was not lost forever. She gave an empty peanut butter jar to George Wilson of the Tufts Grounds & Buildings department, and he went to the site and collected some of Jumbo's ashes. The jar currently rests in the office of Athletics Director Bill Gehling.

Her ties to Jumbo's story not withstanding, Mrs. Byrne's strict attention to the day-by-day duties in the department earned the most appreciation from those who worked with her.

"Phyllis was an incredibly dedicated employee," said Gehling, who worked with Mrs. Byrne for 10 years when he was women's soccer coach. "She protected the budget like it was her own money. She was tough as nails, but had a very soft heart underneath. I remember her laugh, which could fill a room."

When Gehling was promoted to replace Carzo as Athletics Director in 1999, Tufts hosted a "Passing of the Ashes" ceremony to commemorate the occasion. Byrne attended and played an important role in the event.

"I will never, ever forget the look of joy and pride in her eyes that night," Gehling said. "She was as loyal a Jumbo as there ever was."

Her loyalty to Tufts teams, athletes, coaches and staff was not confined to the Athletics office. She was in Lewiston, Maine on November 10, 1979 to witness one of the Tufts football team's biggest victories.

"I remember the team that went 8-0," she told the Globe, in reference to Jumbo football's last undefeated season. "The last game of the season was at Bates in the pouring rain. I was there and got soaked, but it was worth it. An undefeated season."

Mrs. Byrne retired from Tufts in June 1989.

"Phyllis ran the department with a carrot and a stick, and she never had to use either one," Carzo said. "All of her co-workers tried as hard as she did to make Tufts Athletics the best it could be. Her energy, loyalty and Irish warmth kept us all inspired, much like the Jumbo role model she helped to preserve."

This story originally ran on the Tufts Athletics Web site on Apr. 23.

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