Staff member remembered for her humor, passion

Nicole Chakalis worked at the college for 15 years before leaving in July 2015, said her daughter, Noola Laguardia.

Courtesy Noola Laguardia

Nicole Chakalis worked at the college for 15 years before leaving in July 2015, said her daughter, Noola Laguardia.

By Campus Reporter

Nicole Chakalis, a staff member and alumna of the college’s Creative Writing Department, died Dec. 1 at the age of 67.

Chakalis died at the Rush University Medical Center in Chicago surrounded by her family after a brief and unexpected illness, said one of her two daughters, Noola Laguardia.

Chakalis received her bachelor’s degree in 2003 and her master’s degree in 2006 from the college’s former Fiction Writing Department, according to Randy Albers, an adjunct professor and chair emeritus in the Creative Writing Department.

Chakalis began working at the college in 2000 in a secretarial position in the department and was later promoted to an administrative assistant position, Albers said.

“She took students under her wing,” Albers said. “We were very intent on creating a community that would support the students, and she made very strong contributions to that effort.”

Albers said one of his favorite memories of Chakalis was when she performed one of her stories at a Story Week event, a series she worked closely with as part of her departmental responsibilities.

“[Chakalis] was the epitome of a hard-working staff person who also was an artist,” Albers said. “She was selected by the Second Story collective to help kick off Story Week. It was a very funny story and a very poignant story, and she did a fantastic performance of it.”

Tony Trigilio, interim chair and professor of the Creative Writing Department, said he met Chakalis during the Creative Writing Department merger.

“I met her as part of the process of merging and getting to know the staff,” Trigilio said. “She helped make the department and the college the kind of place where the creative process is honored.”

Chakalis stopped working at the college in July 2015, but she remained part of the college community, Laguardia said.

“She still talked to a lot of people [from the college] every day on the phone,” Laguardia said. “[Columbia] was still very much a part of her world.”

Brian Costello, an adjunct professor in the Creative Writing Department, said he met Chakalis in a creative nonfiction writing class in 2000.

“She had an incredible, cynical humor, but underneath that façade was one of the most supportive people I have met,” Costello said. “Things I did not see in myself, she saw.”

Kathie Bergquist, an adjunct professor in the Creative Writing Department, agreed that Chakalis affected her life as well.

“She impacted my life and I think of all the students, faculty and staff that have gone through the department, and what an impact the work she has done has played in student and faculty success,” Bergquist said.

The dedication that Chakalis showed to students, faculty and staff is something that will be missed, Trigilio said.

“[In the department] we really feel her loss and we are grieving,” Trigilio said.

Chakalis embodied the values of the college and the Creative Writing Department in her work, Albers added.

“[Chakalis was] someone who was passionate about the mission of this school, passionate about Columbia, passionate about serving students and passionate about her writing,” Albers said.

Bergquist said Chakalis will be remembered as a reliable asset to the department.

“I do not think anyone would second-guess that if you really needed to have something done, that the person who was really the boss was [Chakalis],” Bergquist said. “She could get anything done and she was always a great person to have on your side.”