Retirement of Sarah Potter ’77, bookstore director who also teaches virtues ‘hard work and thoughtfulness’

For the legions of students who have worked for her in the College Store, Sarah Potter '77 and her staff have helped to give a sense of normalcy amid their intense, day-to-day academic lives. (Phyllis Graber Jensen/Bates College)

Retiring College Store director Sarah Potter ’77 has given generations of student workers a sense of normalcy amid their intense, day-to-day academic lives. (Phyllis Graber Jensen/Bates College)

Back in 2006, when Caitlin McKitrick ’10 and her mother came into the bookstore on her first day at Bates, buying books was on their to-do list.

Also on the list was saying hello to the store’s director, Sarah Emerson Potter ’77, a contemporary of Caitlin’s mom, Rosemary Duggan McKitrick ’75.

Potter, out and about on the store floor per usual, greeted the McKitricks and asked Caitlin how she was doing so far.

Caitlin’s response? “I burst into tears.”

No stranger to students and their stress tears, Potter swept Caitlin and her mom back to her office for some quiet time and deep breaths. Later, she hired Caitlin as a student worker.

From that day forward, Caitlin recalls that Potter — who retires as bookstore director on Oct. 30 after 35 years — “always lent a sympathetic ear” to the student workers, “always asked after our well-being, reminding us to relax, sleep, and eat — and she was always ready with a new book recommendation.”

Most everything in a college bookstore comes at a price, but in the case of the College Store at Bates, there’s a notable exception, that being what Potter has given to some 185 Bates students who’ve worked in the bookstore over the years. (And she’s been at Bates long enough to have hired students in the 1980s and their Bates children in the 2000s.)

“All of us try to help students become fully formed people.”

To them all, she’s given guidance and support, while instilling the best qualities of a Bates education, such as the twin, double-helix virtues of “hard work and thoughtfulness,” in the words of Hallie Balcomb ’14.

In this sense, staff are Bates educators, too.

“All of us try to help students become fully formed people,” Potter says. “We all want them to get a sense of who they really are, so that even if they don’t really know what they’re jumping off into” when they leave Bates, “they have the confidence to jump.”

In March of her senior year at Bates, Hallie Balcomb '14 gets a hug from College Store director Sarah Potter '77. (Phyllis Graber Jensen/Bates College)

In March of her senior year at Bates, student worker Hallie Balcomb ’14 gets a hug from bookstore director Sarah Potter ’77. (Phyllis Graber Jensen/Bates College)

We could go in many other directions to salute Potter’s contributions to Bates.

She has run this $1.2 million business with skill and a human touch, handling everything from purchasing and pricing to managing the college’s relationships with a host of businesses, from car dealerships and local hotels to furniture vendors.

As the college’s “contract officer,” she ensures that Bates is “easy to do business with and is responsive to vendors,” says Doug Ginevan, assistant vice president for financial planning and analysis. “She has done it superbly.”

She’s embraced sustainable practices, receiving a Stanton Environmental Stewardship Award in 2013 from Bates, and the Harward Center honored her in 2008 with its Staff Award for Community Volunteerism and Leadership.

Changing with the times, Potter has adjusted the store’s mission. More of a textbook “counselor,” the store sees its “obligation as much more than selling a textbook. It’s to help a student somehow get that book,” she says, whether through a sale, rental, reserve, or other way.

She creates community in specific ways. She’s published the jovial and offbeat “Good Reads for Leisure Moments” summer reading list each spring since 1997, a friendly place where someone like Dana Professor of Theater Martin Andrucki can admit to admiring the books of Maeve Binchy. (“I still can’t tell if Marty was being tongue in cheek,” Potter says.)

Like other Bates alumni staff members — like Leigh Campbell ’64, who continues to counsel students for Student Financial Services — Potter’s combination of job focus and personal experience gives her a good sense of student life.

Each year, Potter hires a dozen or more students to handle the cash register, stock shelves, and keep the place looking sharp.

In many cases, Potter is part of their lives literally from start to finish.

Balcomb, now teaching at St. James School in Hagerstown, Md., was hired after meeting Potter on her first day at Bates. Four years later, on Commencement Day, “I turned the corner of the ramp to receive my diploma and saw Sarah standing there with her wonderful colleagues, ready to reach out for a hug.”

In between, Potter says that she and her colleagues try to give students “a sense of normalcy.” The staff helps to balance and relieve students from the intense academic rigor that many of them are experiencing for the first time in their lives.

And she treats students the way she was treated by the staff at Bates.

“People like the dorm housekeeper, the night watchman, or the women I worked with in Commons were family; they teased me, and I could tease them back,” Potter recalls. “They were incredibly connected to my daily life, and I could always turn to them.”

Potter and her staff “were my family away from home,” says McKitrick.

The road to academic honors has a few stress stops on the way, and for McKitrick one stop was giving a public talk about her anthropology thesis.

“When I walked into the room, Sarah was sitting front-row center,” McKitrick recalls. “I hadn’t mentioned it to her but she found out about it and came to support me.”

“It’s being able to come in and be who you are. You can be grumpy. You can unload.”

Potter’s interest in student life is more than personal, and her work to supervise student workers involves seeing them at their best, their worst, and everything in between.

“It’s being able to come in and be who you are. You can be grumpy. You can unload — ‘unpack’ is probably a better word for what they do,” Potter says.

Years ago, one of the store’s student workers was caught stealing merchandise. Working with student deans, Potter focused on restorative justice, not punishment. She and her staff met with the student and talked about what happened.

At Reunion 2002, Sarah Potter '77 talks with Ernest Muller, professor emeritus of history, and his wife, Peg. (Phyllis Graber Jensen/Bates College)

At Reunion 2002, Sarah Potter ’77 talks with Ernest Muller, professor emeritus of history, and his wife, Peg. (Phyllis Graber Jensen/Bates College)

“We talked about how it made us feel, and the student was horrified and remorseful,” Potter recalls. “I don’t know what the student is doing now. But you hope it was the kind of teachable moment that helped create a better life.”

It helps that Potter, who came to Bates from Gorham (Maine) High School, has never forgotten what it’s like to be a Bates student.

Many students get overwhelmed when they can’t be the same kind of student they were in high school, “with their fingers in a lot of curricular and extracurricular pies,” she says. At Bates, “you can’t leave yourself a half-hour to do homework after your play rehearsal like you did in high school. The academic intensity won’t allow it.

“I remember what it was like to come here and be overwhelmed. I feel their anxiety.”

While a student’s faculty mentor often exerts influence later in a student’s Bates life, the student-supervisor work relationship often starts early and builds from there.

Jason Hall ’97 has a law degree from Vanderbilt and is vice president for entrepreneurship and innovation for the St. Louis Chamber.

Hall brings to his work today what he saw in Potter back then — how being “positive and authentic” has a “tremendous influence on motivating a team.”

In 1993, he was a first-generation-to-college student, and over the next four years his campus work would become “very much a part of my life and experience at Bates.”

His first and only job was in the bookstore, and his touchstone was Potter, an emotional shock absorber who was “always incredibly positive and extraordinarily good-humored.” No matter how things were going for Hall at Bates, he knew that “going to work was going to be a bright spot for me.”

Hall brings to his work today what he saw in Potter back then — how being “positive and authentic” has a “tremendous influence on motivating a team.” Not to be ignored, either, is how an upbeat boss simply “makes the daily life of those she leads brighter in so many ways.”

After their weepy meeting, McKitrick says that Potter “saw me grow up over those four years — navigating school, stress, new friendships, breakups, and new relationships.”

And a marriage. When McKitrick met her future husband, Ethan Warren ’08, it was a meet-cute, Bates bookstore style.

“He and his friends called me ‘CBG’ — Cute Bookstore Girl,” says McKitrick, who is in graduate school at the Yale Nurse-Midwifery/Women’s Health Nurse Practitioner program.

He kept stopping in to buy pens, ink cartridges, and batteries before he got the courage to introduce himself. “We went on our first date eight years ago over fall break, and got married in July.

“I am so glad Sarah offered me that job!”