The Many Hats of Deborah Jo Gehrke


The Many Hats of Deborah Jo Gehrke

The life and times of a beloved Quincy House Dean




“Deb’s only goal was to make sure other people were happy,” said Elizabeth Jacobsen, a current Dean’s Aide in Quincy House. Eli met Deb when she started living in Quincy House her sophomore year at Harvard, and after graduating in 2016, began working as a Dean’s Aide. As someone who worked so closely for years with Deb, Eli had many stories to tell about Deb’s life and the lives she touched as a teacher, artist, prankster, planner, boss, wife, mother, and much more. “Deb wore many hats,” she said. “She used each of her roles to spread joy and happiness into other people’s lives.”

Deb did not only impact her existing community; she created one in Quincy House alongside her husband, Lee Gehrke. Together, they created an environment where students feel more than welcome.

Deb and Lee frequently hosted open houses with baked goods and music, which one student describes as “even homier than home.”

This included a standout: a Cake Boss-themed night in the dining hall where students were given a plain sheet cake and plenty of decorations to illustrate a story told by frosting.

Deb had the reputation of being an avid sports fan. Under her leadership, Quincy won the Straus Cup for the first time in 59 years. She loved supporting Harvard Athletics, no matter what sport, and joined students’ celebrations in the Quincy courtyard when the Patriots won the Super Bowl in 2017. Legend says that Deb tried to pop a champagne bottle outside. When it didn’t open at first, she lifted it in the air and spiked it on the ground, propelling it into the air. Students who witnessed the event say they will never forget it.

Deb would have maybe a hundred prank ideas on a daily basis, and ninety-nine of them were great, but one of them would always be crazy, and that was always the one she had her heart set on. One, which immediately passed into Quincy legend, involved moving one of her co-workers entire rooms – including all possible furniture – into the dining hall. Another time, she gave out doughnuts and didn’t tell anyone that one of them was actually a bar of soap in disguise. Deb would do anything she could think of to shake up the monotony of work and stress, knowing as she did that the students and faculty needed it. She was this way every day, bringing unexpected laughs and excitement to everyone she was able to.

It is rare to see a person who is able to indulge in fun the way Deb did. She opened up her home for students to come and enjoy home-made cookies and cupcakes. On Halloween, she waited outside the elevator in a mask and a chainsaw just to give people a laugh. She held no reservations, took many risks, and because of this, created happiness every day of her life for as many people as she could possibly manage. Her spirit is missed, but she will not stop impacting lives because the traditions she began are being carried on. What cannot be replaced is her ability to continually spread joy.

Deb used her art as a way to connect to people and express her ideas of beauty, creating often abstract images filled with life and color. She loved painting with watercolor and experimenting with oil pastels, anything that let her create and combine vibrant colors. Most of all, she loved to share her art with the Quincy community, where some of it still hangs on display in the hallways of the House. But no one can describe Deb’s art better than herself. On her website, alongside more pictures, she writes, “My favorite thing to do is deconstructing a watercolor and bringing it back… to discover the beauty in unusual places.”

Through her elaborately planned House events, ridiculous pranks, and meaningful art, Deb helped create a community in Quincy House. Eli and the other Quincy Dean Aides will do as much as they can to continue her legacy. They decided to finish off the spring semester as strong as they had started it with Deb lighting the way. “It’s not going to be perfect, and it never will be because it’s not Deb, but we’ll do as much as we can to do right by her,” said Dean’s Aide Brett Biebelberg.

Deborah Jo Gehrke was a woman beloved by all. She passed away from breast cancer on Christmas Day, 2019. She was sixty-six years old, and is survived by her husband, one sister, and two married children.


Kiley Allen ’22 (kileyallen@college.harvard. edu) is very happy to have been placed in Quincy.