PASADENA, CA — It was June 2021. Caltech was preparing to welcome students back to campus for the first time since the pandemic, and tensions were high. Needless to say, these were Unprecedented Times. For incoming frosh and their families, most of whom had never had the opportunity to visit Caltech before committing, the next few months looked especially uncertain. Questions like “Will I have to sleep in a different place every day for rotation?” “When do I register for classes?” and “Will my admission be rescinded if I fail the placement tests?” plagued our minds.
Inboxes were inundated with flurries of onboarding documents and COVID-19 updates, which would have been exhausting even if the world hadn’t been communicating through screens for a year already. But out of the hundreds of impersonal, automated emails we received, exactly one showed a profile picture of the sender. It was Rosemary (“Beth”) Larranaga, the Office Manager for the Dean of Undergraduate Students, reaching out with a smiling face and a convenient, comprehensive to-do list for frosh. It was the first thing resembling a welcome message we’d received from outside the Admissions Office.
For a lot of frosh — and even some sophomores — Beth’s was the first face they put to a name within the Caltech community.
“She actually seemed like a real person,” chuckled Jonathan Booker (Physics/CS ‘25, Ricketts), recalling that email.
Later that year in September, Beth was also one of the first to greet students arriving on campus for move-in day. Her eyes glowed as she chatted with excited students and parents from the windows of their cars in the drop-off line.
“I love talking to students! It’s just fun. Life is fun,” Beth chirped at the beginning of our interview last month. She gestured to a box of Einstein Bros. bagels on the countertop in the Deans’ Office. “You should eat!” she grinned knowingly, and she was right — like any good* Caltech student, I hadn’t had time to get lunch yet. “Oh, we have cream cheese too,” she said, unprompted, already halfway across the room to the fridge.
To many undergraduates at Caltech, our administrators — particularly the Deans — come across as hopelessly out-of-touch from the student body. But not Beth. In her 16 years as Office Manager, Beth has worked alongside six different deans. She maintains an ever-humble and self-effacing demeanor (“I definitely have impostor syndrome bad,” she admitted), but to anyone who’s met her, her experience and wisdom are obvious.
“I love that woman. I’m convinced that she singlehandedly holds up this entire school,” Jonathan laughed (but not joking).
Actually, that’s probably more true than you’d expect. Something a lot of people don’t realize — the thing that makes Beth, well, Beth — is that she grew up in Pasadena. She has been a member of the Caltech community for literally her entire life. A lot of people left their homes to come here, but for Beth, this is home. It’s the only one she’s ever known. In fact, today Beth and her husband, Erwin, live on the very same plot of land as her childhood home. (The landline number has not changed!) So at what point does the place stop defining the person, and the person start defining the place?
Beth grew up in a very lively household — all told, there were 9 kids in the family — just up the street from Caltech on El Molino Avenue. “Each summer [my siblings and I] were rewarded for doing our chores with visits to the Caltech pool, so being on campus has always felt like a treat,” Beth writes in her LinkedIn bio. (She left out the part about knocking her front teeth out there when she was nine!)
In fact, many of Beth’s fondest childhood memories take place at locations very familiar to Caltech students; it’s remarkable to consider that she’s known them for far longer than we’ve been alive. As easy as it would be to take it all for granted (and many of us probably already do), Beth still regards every block of her hometown with childlike wonder.
“My family threw my 2nd birthday party at Tournament Park, just down the street on Wilson. Did you know they landed the first ever cross-continental plane flight there [in 1911]? I just learned that!”
All this time later, Beth still adores Tournament Park. She’s always looking for an excuse to go there, whether it’s on a walk with her best friend Nancy or for a Prefrosh Welcome event. (Jonathan remembers that event well — it was the first time he talked to Beth one-to-one. He fondly recalled helping her transport 20 Heavy Boxes to the park during his time as a Frosh Camp Counselor earlier this year.)
Beth’s father, William F. Carroll, was a Materials Engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), and at an exciting time, too. In the 1960s and ‘70s, JPL was pioneering robotic exploration of the solar system. He would share fantastic stories of the latest missions to the Moon, Venus, or Mars. Beth’s aunt, a technician at the JPL Photo Lab, used to bring home 8” x 10” ‘glossies’ of the photographs she’d developed at work that day. Later in the ‘70s, when the Voyager probes became the first human-made objects to reach the outer solar system, they were often humanity’s first close-up images of a planet.
Beth rummaged through the display of knick-knacks surrounding her desk (“Sorry, I’m always so cluttered!”), then excitedly presented me with a 11” x 14” picture frame. She beamed as she watched me read the NASA letterhead with widening eyes:
Office of Public Information Jet Propulsion Laboratory January 26, 1979
This recent color picture of Jupiter was taken by Voyager 1’s camera from a distance of 30 million miles…
Beth’s eyes sparkled as she talked about her father, who had passed away in 1983 from pancreatic cancer. Outside of JPL, he spent a large part of his career developing solar panels, back when funds were abundant from Jimmy Carter’s push for renewable energy. It had been a big deal when Carter installed solar panels on the roof of the White House in 1979. It had been less of a big deal when Ronald Reagan removed the solar panels and the funding for renewable energy research just a few years later. “Imagine where we’d be today, if we’d continued to fund that research,” Beth lamented, her voice softening.
Science and astronomy still captivate Beth to this day. When watching documentaries about her favorite topics, she is often delighted to see people she knows at Caltech, on-screen and in their element.
“I’ll be like, oh! I just emailed him yesterday!”
Beth attended Alverno High School, a private Catholic girls’ school in Altadena. After graduating, she attended night classes at Pasadena City college for a few terms while working odd jobs during the day. Then, in 1984, she started her first full-time job as a teller at the Caltech Credit Union (CCU).
“It was actually my dad who told me I should go work at CCU. In fact that was one of the last things he told me [before his passing],” she said tenderly.
That’s where Beth got to know her best friend, Nancy Paradise, who was her boss at the time. “Beth worked hard — she went far and above. She did more work than any other teller,” Nancy raved. “I’m always happy to talk about Beth!” Fun fact: Nancy is now the Finance Manager of Caltech IPAC.
“It was love at first sight,” Nancy said, recalling meeting Beth for the first time. “We became friends instantly. She told you about our tag games, right?”
Of course she had. Beth and Nancy’s workplace shenanigans, often involving large quantities of adhesive dots or sticky notes, would rival those of Jim and Dwight from The Office. “We had way too much fun,” Beth giggled. “They had to separate us!”
Beth at her bank teller station at Caltech Credit Union, c. 1990
Nancy had just moved to California a few months prior to meeting Beth. She didn’t know many people in the area, but Beth’s family happily took her under their wing. No questions were asked — that’s just what they did. The two of them have remained close friends over the years. Nancy attributes this in part to the fact that she and Beth have polar-opposite Briggs Meyer personality types. (“We complete each other!”)
It was also around this time that Beth met her future husband, Erwin, who was an electrician at Caltech. He came to the Credit Union’s office in the basement of Keith-Spalding every week to cash his paycheck. A perfect environment for romance to blossom! “One day, he came in to turn in a loan application… for my heart,” Beth grinned sheepishly.
Beth and her colleagues were all still in their 20s at this point, and they were very much part of Caltech’s broader social scene. There was a softball league, frequent JPL/Caltech crossover happy hours, and of course, the undergraduates’ Interhouse parties.
“I actually never knew about the steam tunnels until I met my husband,” Beth told me. “He took me to an interhouse there once — people had built an entire pirate ship. It was amazing!” Editor’s note: The California Tech disavows any and all knowledge of such “tunnels”.
Nine years, one wedding, and two kids after she started at the CCU, Beth had made her way up the ladder to Campus Branch Manager. Then she got the news: twin girls on the way! Like any sane human beings, Beth and Erwin were terrified. But in a not-so-crazy coincidence, they ended up getting advice from Linus Pauling’s daughter, Linda, who had also recently had twins. Beth’s girls arrived in 1993, and she promptly “retired” from the CCU in order to focus on her family.
I looked back at Beth after the extra 30 seconds it took me to catch up in my interview notes. But she had turned back to her computer, and was also furiously typing. “Sorry, I need to take care of this email quickly,” she quipped. Coming from anyone else, that might have seemed a bit rude, but Beth is known for her lightning-fast turnaround times.
“Throughout all of the emails we’ve exchanged,” Jonathan reported, “it has never taken Beth longer than two hours to get back to me.”
After her kids got older, Beth decided to return to work. She had a brief stint back at the CCU (“It was so strange to see some of the same people 20 years later!”), then spent a few years in the Bursar’s Office and the Financial Aid Office. In the Spring of 2007, when a vacancy appeared in the Deans’ Office, she hesitated at first — she had no idea if she could do the job. Even today, Beth is self-conscious about not having a college degree, but she applied for the position anyway. Commentary on higher education aside, the past 16 years speak for themselves.
“I just love working in this office,” Beth gleamed. “To be honest, I’m a little bit ‘A.D.D.’ so I have to do different things all the time. Around here, you never know what’s going to happen! It’s so fun and interesting. Good for my brain.”
To some people, the prospect of living in the same city and working in the same place their entire life is unthinkable. Beth is not one of those people.
“Did I ever want to leave Pasadena?” she pondered. “I mean, maybe when I was younger? Sometimes I wonder, what if I’d gone into STEM — like, the first time I saw the student-run metal shop on campus, I was like ‘AHH, I COULD HAVE BECOME A MECHANICAL ENGINEER…’ but then, I might not have my kids! And I’m really happy with my life right now.”
For Beth, the important things are already right here: a lifetime of friends and connections; her three grandkids (ages 6, 1, and 1) who recently moved back in town; Caltech’s beautiful campus (she never forgets to stop, smell, and photograph the flowers); the very same swimming pool from her childhood, where she and Nancy took their kids (and now grandkids!) to swim lessons every summer; her art studio, where she learned to fuse intricate works of dichromic glass (“This is the same type of glass as the metallic visors on NASA space suits!” she told me excitedly); and, of course, the Caltech students.
“It’s you guys! You all are amazing. I feel so lucky to get to know everybody and help them along their paths.”
And Beth does know everybody. “When I went to deliver the Tech to the Deans’ Office earlier,” Jonathan told me, “she hadn’t seen me since things started going downhill for me last term, so she was like, ‘Hi! Are You Doing OK??’ (I am now!)”
For Beth, it’s a no-brainer. “It’s what I get up in the morning to do. I love it.”
Beth at her desk in the Deans’ Office with her ‘therapy birds’ displayed next to her nameplate. She affectionately put one of the little stone sculptures into my hand; I could almost feel the softness of its feathers.