For all those years, Peggy Kowalski tended to be the first person you saw upon arrival at the Palestra or Franklin Field — even if you were the second person to arrive at the Palestra or Franklin Field.
Later on, game long over, this same woman was often last, still on site. In the old days, somebody had to lock up, and make sure nobody was locked in.
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For many of the last 38 years, these were her buildings. Kowalski never let on that her role was as crucial as that of a coach or a quarterback or a point guard. She has to be on the short list, maybe even at the top of it, for people who spent the most combined lifetime time at the Palestra and Franklin Field.
Her official title for many years was the Penn athletic department’s director of special events — although that also seemed to mean all the regular events, too.
“Correct,’' Kowalski said.
Her general tone all these years, let’s call it warmly exasperated. Not fazed or even unfazed. Past all that, just smiling through any craziness that got in the doors. (”There were a lot of doors,’' she pointed out about the Palestra.) You always got a sense Kowalski kind of liked the lunacy — it just wasn’t in her job description to admit it.
Eras can end without noise or notice, but at least the announcement that Kowalski was retiring after 38 years in the employ of Penn, most recently in the athletic development office, came with an appropriate honor attached.
Peggy’s first boss was her own father, Bob Donohue, the Palestra’s ticket manager for 15 years of his own. She began selling tickets when she herself was a Penn undergraduate, class of ’78. Since their combined tenures last half a century, the front lobby box office will be named the Donohue-Kowalski Box Office.
“Honored and humbled” is how Kowalski described the honor for a family business that didn’t even begin with dad. Her grandfather also sold tickets there. She isn’t sure when he got started.
“I was probably there before I knew I was there,’' Kowalski said of her first time at the Palestra.
The family business wasn’t automatically going to be her business. She made her teenage money waitressing.
“When I first started, there was a time when girls didn’t sell tickets,’' Kowalski said.
Since she was attending Penn, however, she picked up some box-office shifts. After graduating, she taught grade school, got married, spent two years away from the city since her husband was in the military. When there was a full-time job available at Penn in 1982, Kowalski took it without hesitation.
In the East hallway of the Palestra, there’s a sign for a ticket office, an artifact now, a place where the cheerleaders set up shop, but that’s where Kowalski first set up selling advance tickets, staying open until just after halftime.
Although she was close to the action, she couldn’t always see it — “I was tired of being in the front lobby” — so after some years as ticket manager, she asked for a change, and they created a position, putting her in charge of events, but still overseeing ticket sales. When the Quakers had it rolling in the ’90s, Fran Dunphy had her on the road too, to deal with any ticket issues, since there were always ticket issues.
Scariest one for her, she said, was when Penn played an NCAA game in the Baltimore Arena. It’s one thing for there to be a tough ticket — “I can truly say, it was the only time in my life, a little after tipoff, I had no tickets, and I had prayed no one else came up.”
Other memories include a U2 concert at Franklin Field when the promoter demanded an exact count of partially obstructed seats, which meant Kowalski spent hours walking around the old stadium getting that count. The praise she got was that they never had so few requests for relocations as that night.
At home hoops games, she’d often be the one standing in a portal or in the southwest corner close to the student section, making sure nobody got too out of hand. If a referee had a problem with a student, she’d often be the one to have the conversation.
There was one time an undergraduate — a future brain surgeon, Kowalski said — had gotten too far under the skin of a ref, who ordered him ejected.
“I pulled him out to the hallway,’' Kowalski said. “He was pleading his case. Finally, I said, ‘I tell you what, if I don’t see you, and you walk into the top section, and you’re not screaming, you can stay.’”
Kowalski added to him, “I didn’t tell you this.”
The guy later thanked her.
“They are passionate, and you want to give them enough room where they can enjoy themselves,’' she said.
Getting there early was just for peace of mind.
“You could easily worry about everything,’' Kowalski said. “The good news, I can sleep. You have a check-off list, get there early. You always knew if you weren’t ready before everything started, something would happen.”
In case you hadn’t heard, the Palestra isn’t all about the amenities.
“It’s not the easiest facility,’' Kowalski said. “You didn’t have the greatest margin for error in the world.”
Having keys to the building was a responsibility she took seriously, all hours.
“You could easily see who was going to be successful,’' Kowalski said of the players who spent many hours in the Palestra working on their game. “In those days, you just had to make sure they were never alone. If you were in there and no one knew you were in there, you’d get padlocked in.”
When Invinceable and Unbreakable both filmed football scenes at Franklin Field, Kowalski was in charge of making sure it all went smoothly from Penn’s end. (She got a personal thank you in the Unbreakable screen credits.)
The Atlantic 10 tournament showed up for years, which meant more fun and more worries. LeBron James playing at the Palestra, and a high school playoff showdown between Kobe Bryant and Rip Hamilton, each packed the place to capacity and then some.
“That game was just crazy because they did a general admission,’' Kowalski said of the PIAA playoff game. “Which meant people spread out.”
When you’re in the ticket business, such details are everything.
“One claim to fame,’' Kowalski said, “I did renumber Franklin Field.”
Sections used to end and the next one begin regardless of their relation to the entrance portal. Confusion reigned. She took care of that.
A previous time Franklin Field was being renovated, nobody mentioned to the person in charge of tickets that half the grandstands would be closed. She dealt with it. She remembers a big crowd when Temple hosted Penn State one year. She was getting quizzed on how many seats she had to sell. She knew.
“There’s 18 inches a seat, opposed to 16 in the old days,’' Kowalski said. “I think Penn State is 14½, actually.”
She’ll be back, just not first in the door, and maybe if there is a job inside the Palestra that calls for a volunteer, she’ll take the call.
“I don’t know if I can just sit and watch an event,’' Kowalski said.