Iowa State University

Inside Iowa State
Mar. 06, 1998

Ripley on the run

by Anne Dolan

Need help with a tired-looking lily?

Had a lab accident that requires a quick, calm response?

Want to locate a dog sled outfitter in Canada's Northwest Territory? Nan Ripley can help you with any of these dilemmas, and probably a few hundred more.

Ripley, secretary to the Scalable Computing Laboratory program in Ames Lab, is a big believer in life-long learning and just plain enjoying what you do.

"When I hit 40, I knew I had to do more -- and faster," she said. "I promised myself I would get to three new places and try three new things every year."

More than a dozen years later, she's still on pace. She has tried downhill and cross-country skiing, rappelling, snorkeling and parasailing. Since 1994 she has been certified as a Master Gardener in the ISU Extension program and has taken garden show judging classes. Currently, she's enrolled in what she calls "landscape critic classes," which she hopes will make her a more informed community planning board member some day.

The service that's required to keep her Master Gardener certification has thrust her into lots of gardening talks and activities. She's an annual entry in the Ames Garden Club Flower Show and a member of the state lily, daylily, hosta and iris societies.

She has vacationed in Australia, China, Mexico's Mazatlan and Cozumel, the island of St. Thomas and Canada's Yellowknife, Northwest Territory.

Several decades of training and showing Arabian horses and German shepherd dogs have taken her to cities across the United States and Canada. She still owns three horses and keeps one at her home southwest of Nevada. Each spring, she tries to take a week to camp and ride horses in the western states with friends.

And Ripley still has a German shepherd she trains. Later this spring, she and Mindy will attend a three-day search and rescue workshop in Wisconsin.

Ripley arrived at Iowa State in 1976. For eight years, she had a nine-month appointment in the athletic department's football program. In 1984, she transferred to Recreation Services and began working year-round, a change that curtailed her horse showing hobby. Since June 1992, she has been working with associate professor of computer science John Gustafson in the scalable computing program.

Not computer-comfortable at the time she made the switch, Ripley credits Gustafson with making sure she received all the training she wanted. "John said to me, 'You don't seem to be afraid of (computers) and you seem to like learning.' He lets me go to any class I ask him about. It's a great honor to do those things," she said.

Today, in addition to the usual office correspondence, payroll and report-preparing tasks, Ripley maintains the computing lab's Web site.

Gustafson thinks so much of her work that he nominated her in a "Secretary of the Day" contest sponsored by a Des Moines radio station. She was one of four secretaries honored in the contest that year.

Two years ago, when a graduate student was overcome by leaking hydrogen sulfide gas in a Wilhelm Hall lab next door to Ripley's office, it was Ripley who dialed emergency numbers and performed chest compressions on the unconscious student. She was one of five people later recognized by Ames Lab director Tom Barton for "exemplary behavior in an emergency situation." Barton noted that Ripley kept her cool in a stressful moment.

"I work with horses and I've learned that if things get out of hand, they can fly out of hand," Ripley said. "I become quiet and methodical in situations like that."

In spite of her ability to take charge when needed, Ripley said she doesn't aspire to be in charge.

"I guess I'd rather support others and learn from them," she said. "If you pick interesting people to work for, you're always going to learn something."

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