Phyllis Byrne, the former Athletics Department employee who was partially responsible for securing Jumbo’s ashes, died on April 21. She was 83.
Byrne worked at the Athletics Department as an administrative assistant for 30 years until she retired in 1989 and is remembered by her colleagues as a dedicated, efficient employee with an enthusiastic love for Tufts athletics and its history.
“She became very prominent in the Athletics Department,” said Rocky Carzo, who served as athletics director from 1973 to 1999 and is currently the athletics director emeritus. “Not so much in rank, but in terms of people who used to gravitate toward Phyllis.”
Bryne was always “jovial and full of energy” and was particularly knowledgable about the history of Tufts as well as the inner workings of the university, according to Carzo. When the Athletics Department needed a signature, a favor from another department or to help out an athlete with a problem, Byrne often was able to lend a hand.
“She just had a knack; she could get things done,” Carzo said.
“She always had time to be nice to people, but at the same time, she’d kick their ass if she needed to,” he continued. “She developed a fondness for Tufts, and everyone treated her with respect and affection.”
While Byrne may have achieved a legendary reputation within the department, she left a permanent mark on all of Tufts by securing the fate of another legend: Jumbo.
Jumbo, Tufts’ mascot and the former 12-foot-tall star of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, was hit by a train in 1885. P.T. Barnum, a former Tufts trustee, donated the hide of the elephant to the university, and a stuffed Jumbo was placed in Barnum Hall. The building—along with all of Jumbo except his tail—burned down in 1975.
When George Wilson, a grounds and buildings department employee, came to the athletics office to spread the news, Byrne immediately asked him if he had saved any ashes, according to Carzo. When Wilson told her he hadn’t, Byrne found an empty peanut butter jar and gave it to him to fill with ashes.
After Wilson returned with the jar, Byrne made a label for it and put it on Carzo’s desk.
Byrne returned to the Hill in October of 1999 to take part in the “Passing of Ashes” ceremony when current Director of Athletics William Gehling replaced Carzo. The ashes remain in Gehling’s office today.
Taking control in securing Jumbo’s remains was not out of character for Byrne, who played a prominent role in making sure the Athletics Department’s affairs proceeded smoothly. “She ran the department as though it were her own house,” Carzo said.
Carzo recounted one night when he was working as a football coach and was watching film to prepare for a game. The light bulb on the projector burned out, and Carzo could not find a new one. He called Byrne at home, and she told him, “You’ll never find them because they’re in the safe.”
While Byrne was willing to, and did, come down to the office to get him a bulb, she never relinquished control of the safe. She would even guard pencils and distribute them only when necessary. “We never went over budget when she was here,” Carzo said.
Byrne would also frequently go the extra mile. “She was involved in everything,” Carzo said, noting how she would attend all kinds of sporting events and frequently take tickets at them. She organized Christmas parties and alumni events, many of which took place on Saturdays and for which she didn’t get paid. But, according to Carzo, that didn’t bother her at all.
“It wasn’t a job—that’s the big thing,” Carzo said. “It was all natural for her.”