Jennifer Dilworth Northam ’91 thrives on sparking conversation between people
Walking down Main Street in downtown Walla Walla with Jennifer Dilworth Northam ’91 requires patience — not because she walks slowly, but because everyone wants to stop her in her tracks and say “Hi!” As assistant director in Whitman’s Office of Alumni Relations, Northam thrives on sparking conversations between people.
“I have a friend who calls me ‘The Pollinator’ because I go, ‘Here, I think you should talk to this person, and you should talk to this person,’” Northam said. “Building connections is important to me. Broadening and deepening the engagement of our alumni to the college can only help our students.”
Born and raised just north of Seattle in the suburban enclave of Shoreline, Washington, Northam intended to go to the University of Washington but ended up at Whitman as a transfer student in 1987 after receiving encouragement from peers and mentors. The first person to suggest Whitman was her high school English teacher, Roberta Hawkins, who received Whitman’s outstanding high school educator recognition. A second recommendation came from her fellow student council leader, Craig Connors ’89, who had already enrolled at Whitman.
“Craig said, ‘It’s a cool place and you should totally check it out.’ So, I did and it appealed greatly,” Northam said. “Back in the day, there was no internet, no online tour. It was talking to friends.”
But what really clinched it for her was talking to Shauna Lilly Bogley ’83, who at the time was the Seattle-area representative for the Office of Admission.
“Talking to Shauna about the opportunities here, the fact that it was a small student body, just over 1,200 students, which was the same size as my high school. That comfort factor of knowing you’re going to recognize just about everybody who you see, know their name, even if you don’t know them well personally, that was appealing, too,” Northam said.
During her junior and senior years at Whitman, Northam worked in the office of then-President David Maxwell. She helped prepare for the governing board meetings, for commencement and other campuswide events. Getting to work with just about every constituency on campus turned out to be the perfect job for the people person.
“I decided the one office, the one position, the one job I would want if I could ever come back to be an employee at Whitman was to work in the Alumni Relations Office and to be the assistant director,” Northam said. “After five years, it’s still my dream job.”
Since graduating, Northam has rarely been far from campus.
After marrying Jeff Northam ’88, she worked for the Downtown Walla Walla Foundation, where she helped manage the Thursday afternoon Downtown Summer Concert Series.
“Walla Walla was a very different place in the early ’90s,” she recalled. “We had to work really hard to try to keep businesses going, so that they had some sort of events and activities that would pull people downtown.”
The Northams moved to Boise, Idaho, while Jeff earned his master’s degree at Boise State University, then to Bozeman, Montana, where Jeff coached tennis at Montana State University.
“We lived in Bozeman for nine months, and it was the longest three years of my life,” Northam joked. “I am not a huge fan of snow, and that was the snowiest winter on record — 186 inches!”
On May 1, a fresh foot of snow fell.
“I cried all day and told Jeff that if he wanted to stay in Montana, he was going to do it by himself, but I was going home. And by home, I totally meant Walla Walla,” she said.
Jeff became head coach of Whitman’s men’s tennis team in the fall of 1997. Now in his 21st season, Jeff has been honored multiple times as Northwest Conference Coach of the Year and netted numerous conferences titles. The couple has two children, Benjamin and Anna.
After returning to Walla Walla, Northam worked for the Development Office and the Office of Admission before rejoining the Downtown Walla Walla Foundation, where she coordinated community events, such as Feast Walla Walla, the Wheelin’ Walla Walla Weekend car show and Macy’s Parade of Lights. She left the Foundation for her position in the Office of Alumni Relations in 2013.
Northam takes great pride in her role in growing downtown Walla Walla.
“I really feel like we’re on the cusp. People talk about how Walla Walla will be the new Napa,” she said. “I’m still incredibly devoted to our downtown and always will be.”
Many people also know Northam for her singing. She developed her voice with the Whitman chorus, and also sung with the Sweet Adelines for about 15 years, as well as other groups. She often accompanies singer-songwriter Mark Brown on gigs.
“We sing everything. Sometimes it’s jazzy, sometimes it’s country, sometimes it’s folkish, pop songs. Mark writes original songs, and we do some tight harmony,” she said.
They key to singing in perfect harmony?
“You always have to be the support. You always have to be carefully listening, responding, but the main piece is to support the melody line, what’s happening. I feel like that’s a pretty good little metaphor for my life,” she said.