People On Campus for May 2002
First Monday
People On Campus
People On Campus is published in FirstMonday by the Public Affairs and Publications offices at SFSU. 415/338-1665.

Norma Siani--A diva of our own

Norma Siani

Norma Siani, director of special events, is a true SFSU original. With University ties that reach back to the 1950s, she has carved out a place for herself in campus lore with a combination of hard work, intensity and style.

And while she has much to look back upon, there's also much to look forward to, especially the looming annual challenge of Commencement, the event where her talents reign supreme.

Commencement is a a massive effort that takes serious advance planning, the coordination of countless details and the bringing together of a wide array of people and departments from across campus. The result is a field full of students and faculty and their family and friends looking on. Siani has been part of it for three decades.

"Norma knows this campus like no one else, and she has great expertise in doing her job," says Don Scoble, vice president for business and finance. "She can be very persuasive in getting people to do things that need to be done. She's fun and interesting, but she is tough as can be in making sure that things get done in the way she wants them done."

When Siani started at SFSU in 1953, her plan was to get in, earn a teaching credential and get out. But things changed when she met Evelyn Ballard, the then director of the student health service. Ballard needed a secretary, Siani was willing to take the position, and soon she was working full time and going to school part time.

While working, she met S. Charles Siani, a music professor. They married in 1960 and began a family. Siani continued to work on campus in a variety of positions, and in 1973 President Paul Romberg asked her to join his team in the President's Office. It was then that she got her first taste of the grand production that is Commencement.

Her role with Commencement grew, and in 1983 she became director of special events, a new position at SFSU. In 1992 she retired to spend time with her husband. But in a cruel twist of fate, he died a shortly after her retirement. Siani missed her friends on campus, so she returned. Budget cuts eliminated her previous position so she returned as director of conference programs at Seven Hills Conference Center until the special events position was reinstated as a part-time position in 1997.

"There are three parts to my job," she explains. "Commencement, renting University facilities and coordinating whatever special events happen on campus -- receptions, memorials, and so forth." Each year, she plans more than 100 events and coordinates more than 40 leases for use of campus facilities.

A particular highlight for Siani was her role in the 1999 Centennial Gala. She worked for close to a year on logistics, the sound system and coordinating entertainers.

"Out of all the events, that is the one that sticks out in my mind," she says. "It was so beautifully done ... well thought out, professionally done and very elegant. President and Mrs. Corrigan knew exactly what they wanted."

And Siani understands professionalism and elegance as she is known across campus for her sense of fashion -- a style that borders on the flamboyant yet seems uniquely fitting to her personality and position.

Penny Saffold, vice president of student affairs and dean of students, has even labeled her a "diva" because she carries herself with such a "regal demeanor."

It wasn't always so.

"When I was working at Creative Arts (in the early 1970s) the dress wasn't very formal," she says. "But a little while after I moved to work in President Romberg's office, he told me 'You're dressing a little too casually.' I replied, 'I'd be happy to dress nicer if you increase my salary.'"

He did, and Siani used the extra salary to upgrade her wardrobe.

One of the more striking features to her look came from the many weekends Siani spent sailing the San Francisco Bay with her husband, an avid boater. A doctor told her that she needed to reduce sun exposure. This was the pre-sunscreen era so she began wearing hats. She now has more than 40, which she coordinates with her outfits and her 16 pairs of glasses.

Although she's entering her sixth decade of service at SFSU, she still loves the campus and her work.

"My whole life has been here," says Siani. "I had my children while I was here. My daughter was the first student to get a BS in biochemistry here on campus. My husband was a professor here for 29 years. I'm not going to retire until I start forgetting things and once I do, I want some to tell me it's time to let go, and then I will cut the umbilical cord."

Until then, Siani is going strong and busy with staging this year's Commencement ceremony. This year, like so many others, Siani will be in the thick of things come May 25. She will be wielding her walkie-talkie, shepherding the procession of faculty and honored guests into the stadium and sporting, no doubt, one of her trademark hats.

--William Morris

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