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CAEL Pathways Blog

Remembering Diana Bamford-Rees, CAEL’s First Employee

As we celebrate CAEL’s 50th anniversary, there have been many occasions to look back at highlights that helped define our organization. Diana Bamford-Rees, who passed away earlier this month, was behind many of them. As we mourn her loss, we also celebrate the many contributions she made to CAEL and, more importantly, to adult learning.

As CAEL’s first official employee, Diana stood out from day one in her 44-year tenure. During that time, she served in many capacities, beginning with executive associate when CAEL was headquartered in Columbia, Maryland. Production manager of CAEL’s Publications Committee, associate director of CAEL’S Philadelphia office, and associate director of institutional development in Chicago were other roles she held. She also managed special grant projects for CAEL in Massachusetts and New York.

One of her most notable accomplishments was leading CAEL's work in South Africa from 2000 to 2004. During this pivotal time following the fall of apartheid, she oversaw a Ford Foundation project to tailor CAEL's workforce development model to the needs of South African adult learners and workers. As Diana later recalled, she realized that even across socioeconomic and cultural differences, adult learners everywhere face the same issues and barriers. The obstacles they face are invariably scarcities in time and money and juggling the responsibilities of work, family, and education. Diana’s work in South Africa, which included establishing a local staff and training program, empowered more than 1,000 workers with valuable new skills.

But, on a personal level, I remember Diana most for introducing me to CAEL. As executive director of New Ventures of Regis University and a board member of the Council for Accelerated Programs (CAP), I was a CAEL member for about 10 years before joining CAEL as an employee. At the time, Diana was CAEL’s liaison to CAP. CAP would have a subconference every year at the CAEL conference, and that’s how I first met her.

Diana could come across as gruff, especially before you got to know her. But that tough exterior belied a heart of gold consumed with a passion for her work and a focus on improving the lives of adult learners and workers everywhere. She was passionate about CAEL’s mission and supporting its stakeholders, whether they were coworkers, members, or adult learners themselves.

When I joined CAEL as vice president of higher ed and membership, Diana reported to me. I soon grew to admire her indefatigable, old-school approach to conference and event planning. As anyone who plans an annual conference knows, the event may occur over a handful of days, but the work is a year-long task. The “fundraising” model back then, such as it was, was a bit more grassroots than it is today. Diana would make the rounds among members and even fellow CAEL employees, coaxing a few dollars out of whomever was willing to help support the conference. Once the CAEL conference began, Diana became a fixture at the hotel, writing and rewriting runs of show to keep pace with any last-minute drama we could throw her way. 

Those conference memories take me full circle back to reflecting on CAEL’s 50th anniversary and the indelible mark Diana left on CAEL. Celebrating our golden anniversary undeniably entails a celebration of Diana’s own legacy. And there is no better place to celebrate both than in New Orleans, Diana’s favorite city and site of the 2024 annual conference. Diana would visit New Orleans several times each year, staying at her beloved Hotel Monteleone. During CAEL events there, she would treat her CAEL colleagues to impromptu tours of the many hidden gems that lay outside of the city’s better-known array of jazz clubs and eateries. Later this year, as we gather yet again in New Orleans, we’ll be celebrating yet another milestone: CAEL’s 50th annual conference. I think Diana would be proud of how far we’ve come. I know I’m proud to have called her coworker and friend. 

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