It’s best to steer clear of Charlie Toomajian, registrar of the College, on April 1. Infamous for his April Fool’s Day pranks, Toomajian has become one of Williams’ most distinctive figures. Students and faculty recall his warm manner as both registrar and Associate Dean of Student Services.
“He works diligently to maintain a human element in a system that is often mechanical,” Larry Raab, professor of English, friend and squash partner, said. Maintaining that human element has led to colorful stories and an efficient system.
As registrar, a position he has held for 16 years, Toomajian and his staff maintain student records from “the moment you show up until after you graduate,” Toomajian said. The registrar’s office prepares a list of people who have met academic requirements, which is given to the Committee on Academic Standing. They also compile the student handbook and the course catalogue.
Toomajian’s position was expanded to Associate Dean of Student Services six years ago. Since then, he has taken on the responsibility of overseeing relations with international students, accommodations for students with disabilities and the study away program. “And then there’s the general deaning work when people get in trouble,” Toomajian said.
This, of course, often connects him with students. “I very much enjoy working with students,” he said. “It’s a lot of fun.” He keeps a collection of interesting knick-knacks, art and signs in his office, he said, so that if people are nervous about coming to see him, they have some way to distract themselves. From his collection of stuffed flamingos to Civil War relics, each item seems to capture one’s imagination.
Toomajian has had a long career in higher education. After receiving his Ph.D. from Cornell University in the Sociology of Higher Education, he worked at Bowdoin College in the Dean of Students office. His next job was at Hiram College in Hiram, Ohio, where he established a “weekend college” to help repair school financial exigencies. Then, after spending eight years at William and Mary University, he abruptly left higher education.
“Some people do their midlife crisis in a big way,” he said. He took his retirement money and used it to open a Baltimore-style crab house in Yorketown, Va. “It was successful in every way except making money, so I thought I’d best go back.”
He worked briefly at the University of Charleston until the registrar position opened up at Williams. Toomajian applied, thinking it would be “kind of neat” to work at a college that he so admired.
In his 16 years at the College, he has left a mark on the student body as well as on the faculty and staff. “He is representative of how things are done at Williams. He treats students as individuals,” Raab said.
His style of humor is also appreciated on campus. When the College was checking Toomajian’s references before they hired him, the vice president at William and Mary “said that he would recommend that I be hired, but that he would also recommend that I would not be allowed to make any appointments on and around April 1,” Toomajian said.
His modus operandi, it appears, is the sly use of personal stationery. A few years ago, Toomajian decided to play a joke on a friend who was the rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church. Knowing that his friend avoided anything mathematical, Toomajian sent a letter in genuine Trinity College letterhead, his friend’s alma mater, which spoke to the rector’s quantitative fears.
Due to some mix-up in the registrar’s office, the letter read, it had been discovered that his math requirement had not been completed. Take calculus, or have your degree rescinded. “I got a call from the registrar at Trinity saying ’I thought you told me that this gentleman was a pastor.’ I said ’yeah.’ And she said, ’well, he just called me and he didn’t sound like a priest,’” Toomajian recounted.
However, once aware of Toomajian’s style of humor, others have taken measure to defend against it. His wife found an ingenious way of treating her husband to his own medicine. When she left for a brief trip, she placed a rose on his desk with a carefully worded message: “I wanted you to know that I didn’t forget.” Forget what? “I spent the entire day trying to figure out what the hell it was,” he said. “Of course, it was nothing. It was simply designed to drive me nuts.”
Nevertheless, his humor also serves a higher purpose. “Charlie brings humor to situations, which helps put things in perspective,” Ralph Bradburd, professor of economics, said. “He never loses sight of what’s really important.”
By maintaining the human component, Toomajian has raised the registrar’s office from an automaton to a cooperative and efficient system. In that vein, he advised, “Take work seriously, but that doesn’t mean everything has to be serious.”