Monday, November 7, 2011

Former Capitol Hill secretary recalls Kennedy assassination, Nov. 22, 1963

This is another story from Donna Lee, this time describing how she learned that President Kennedy was assassinated:

"The staff of Senator Yarborough, the senior senator from Texas and a liberal Democrat, and the staff of Senator Tower, a conservative Republican, had lunch together every Friday (those were the good old days). Although I was working for Senator Dominick at that time, I still went to lunch on Fridays with the group. We always went to a place near the railroad tracks called 'Spicer's.' I always made sure that I had quarters for the jukebox to play 'Puff, the Magic Dragon.' I can't hear that song today without thinking about that awful day.

"There was an elderly guard, in his 90s, on Senator Carl Hayden's patronage who was a boyhood friend. He manned the side entrance to the Old Senate Office Building that we used after lunch. As we walked up, he said, 'Kennedy's been shot.' I couldn't wrap my head around the fact that it might be fatal. I had to walk by Senator Tower's office to get to Senator Dominick's office. It only took a moment to step into Senator Tower's office with my friends. I saw Ken Towery, who was the administrative assistant, hanging up the telephone with tears streaming down his face. He looked up and simply shook his head without saying a word."

Two days later, on Sunday, Donna would experience yet another shock:

"I was in a cab on the way to the Senate Office Building to watch the funeral procession from The White House to the Capitol when the radio announced that Ruby had shot Oswald. The cab driver cursed and swerved over the curb and up a berm. It took him a few minutes to compose himself and get the cab back on the road. I was a lifelong Republican but, as you say, it didn't matter. The sadness just permeated all of Washington. I stayed until the Christmas recess. My dad had built a lodge/motel in Aspen so I went back there to work after Christmas."

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Nazi Secretaries History Project? Don't laugh.

Interesting story in The Daily Beast yesterday titled, "Secrets of Nazi Secretaries." It's based on an interview the German magazine, Der Bild, conducted with Brunhilde Pomsel, Joseph Goebbels’s former secretary. Now 100, she has broken a 66-year vow of silence and shares memories of working for her old boss.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Elly Peterson: From Secretary to No. 2 in the GOP

Before there were GOP activists like Ann Coulter, Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann, there was Elly Peterson.

In 1963, just six years after taking a secretarial job for the Michigan Republican Party, she was named its vice chairman. Elly's sharp administrative skills made her a natural for the job.

The following year, at the urging of Governor George W. Romney, Elly ran (unsuccessfully) for the U.S. Senate.

From 1969-70, she served as assistant chairman of the Republican National Committee in Washington, D.C. I was a journalism student working in public relations at the RNC at the time.

Unlike more divisive figures that have taken over the GOP today, Elly advanced an inclusive, big-tent approach to politics that welcomed conservative Barry Goldwater, moderate Richard Nixon and liberal George Romney. (See photo of Richard M. Nixon, George Romney and Elly during the 1964 campaign. Photo courtesy of the Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan, Elly M. Peterson papers.)

Elly was an independent thinker, sympathetic to the feminist movement. The issue of equal rights became personal, however, in 1965 when she was preparing to assume the title of chair of the Michigan Republican Party and learned that her salary would be $6,000 less than that of her male predecessor.

Elly went on to become national cochair of ERAmerica, a private national campaign organization, during the fight to get the Equal Rights Amendment ratified. (See photo to the left of Elly, former First Lady Betty Ford and Bella Abzug listen as First Lady Rosalynn Carter addresses the ERAmerica rally at the International Women’s Year Conference in Houston, November 1977. Photo Credit: Carolyn Salisbury, National Education Association, ERAmerica records. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.) Elly was also a member of the NAACP.

In 1967, Elly waged a successful battle against ERA-opponent Phyllis Schlafly (who once said, "Sexual harassment on the job is not a problem for virtuous women”) for control of the National Federation of Republican Women.

When Elly retired from the RNC, columnist David S. Broder wrote in The Washington Post that she would have probably been chosen to lead the party “were it not for the unwritten sex barrier both parties have created around the job.”

During the Reagan years, Elly grew further alienated from the GOP and eventually declared herself an independent.

Before her passing in June 2008, at the age of 94, she was a supporter of Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton’s campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Former Washington Post editor Sara Fitzgerald (see photo left), and a follower of this blog, just released a landmark biography of Ms. Peterson titled, "Elly Peterson: 'Mother' of the Moderates."

She explains why she used 'Mother' to describe Elly:

"Elly Peterson had no children of her own, but dozens of protégées and colleagues called her 'Mother' or variations thereof. It all started in 1957 when Lawrence Lindemer, who was then chair of the Michigan Republican Party, hired Peterson as a secretary. The party’s offices in Lansing were in total disarray, and, according to Peterson, in desperate need of a cleaning job and someone to organize all of the files. She came in and took charge of every aspect of the clean-up job."

Sara, who grew up in Michigan, was a teenager when she watched the 1964 GOP Convention. She said she was surprised to see a woman, Elly Peterson, being interviewed by a national television correspondent. Concurrently, Elly became the first woman to address a national political convention. Sara followed Elly's career, taking special notice when she championed the ERA.

It was fortuitous when, in the early 1990s, Sara learned that her parents had become friends with Elly who was a neighbor of theirs in a retirement community in North Carolina. Later, in 2005, Sara approached Elly with the idea to write her biography.

"Since my college days, I had been interested in women’s history, and I always felt that her story was one that had never been fully told," she explained. "I was gratified that when I finally had the time to work on the project, she was still alive and willing to share her memories with me."

With her passion for the project it was not surprising that Sara has received kudos for her book:

"Sara Fitzgerald tells Peterson's story in this superb and timely biography. It carries a message that deserves the widest audience as the nation struggles to find needed consensus on critical issues amid poisonous political partisanship that has made it increasingly difficult for public officials to bridge their differences. I hope that every American reads it." — Haynes Johnson, Pulitzer-prize winning journalist.

"A magisterially written, well-researched, informative, and entertaining biography of a woman who helped throw open the doors to broader participation and power for women in the Republican Party and American politics." —Dave Dempsey, author of William G. Milliken: Michigan's Passionate Moderate

"Elly Peterson will be a text to which historians and researchers turn for insight into the yin and yang of mainstream politics in the mid-century." —Patricia Sullivan, past president, Journalism and Women Symposium

Click here for more information or to order "Elly Peterson: 'Mother" of the Moderates."

Click here to read Sara Fitzgerald's blog, "What Would Elly Think."

Monday, May 30, 2011

Donna Lee, Sen. John Tower's Office, 1962

This is an excerpt from Donna Lee who worked as a secretary in the office of Sen. John Tower (R-Texas) in 1962, and Sen. Peter Dominick [R-Colo.] in 1963. Donna begins by recalling how she happened to get her first job on Capitol Hill:

"My dad, Howard Lee, married [film actress] Gene Tierney in Aspen in the summer of 1960. In September of 1961, Gene went to D.C to make a movie called Advise & Consent, and she and my dad asked me to come along. The movie was directed by Otto Preminger, a friend of Gene's from making Laura many years earlier, and starred many outstanding actors - Charles Laughton, Henry Fonda, Walter Pidgeon, and others.

"At that time, I was at loose ends, out of college and undecided what to do next. My dad took me to visit the Senate in session and to have lunch in the Senate dining room with Sen. Kenneth Keating [R-NY]. I was mesmerized. After lunch and back at the hotel, I got teary-eyed telling my dad how exciting I found Washington and how I would love to work there. He suggested that I call Phyllis Laughlin who was my sorority sister and good friend at the University of Texas, Austin and see if she would be interested in moving to Washington with me."

Donna said the rest was "serendipity." When she called she learned that Phyllis had just accepted a job in the office of John Tower that morning. He was the newly-elected [junior] senator from Texas, and was recruiting his staff. Phyllis offered to see if there might be a place for Donna, too. Much to their delight, Phyllis was asked to come in for an interview with Tower's administrative assistant at 10 a.m. the following day. She got the job and was told, like Phyllis, to refresh her typing skills, take speed writing, and report for work after the Christmas holiday.

"So, that's how the adventure began," Donna recalled. "The day after Christmas we were on the road driving to D.C. We found an apartment at 2500 Q St., N.W., the very same one that John Kennedy [Sen. John F. Kennedy, D-Mass.] shared with 'Scoop' Jackson [Sen. Henry M. Jackson, D-Wash.]. Not very imposing for two such famous bachelors.

"Sen. Tower was a good man with a great sense of humor. I should also mention that he was a graduate of the London School of Economics, and had a fine mind. You may have heard rumors of womanizing. All I can say is that I was pretty cute and he never made a pass at me. He was quite short and, at 5'2", I was the only person in the office who was shorter than him in my high heels."

A month later Donna received an introduction to sexual politics when she was invited to an annual party for Supreme Court justices hosted by her stepmother's friend, famed hostess Gwen Cafritz. Coincidentally, the party took place on Feb. 20, 1962, the day that John Glenn orbited the earth.

"I was standing in front of a TV when a very attractive older man (I was in my mid-20s, and he was nearly 20 years older) joined me. He [name withheld] chatted for awhile, asked where I worked, and walked off. As he walked away, I heard someone say, 'It's nice to see you, Congressman.' I didn't think anymore about it at the time.

"On Wednesday of the following week, I answered the phone at work to his voice. He said his name and reminded me where we met and asked me to join him for dinner that night at a restaurant in Georgetown. Fortunately, caution caused me to suggest that I meet him. He agreed because he said that he would be coming from a golf game at the Congressional Country Club.

"At dinner I learned that he was indeed a member of Congress from Tennessee. He went on in later years to become the junior senator to Albert Gore [Sen. Albert Gore, Sr., D-Tenn.]. We were halfway through our steaks when he said to me, 'I'm not being quite fair to you. I met your dad and stepmother at a party at the Petroleum Club in Houston when my wife and I were there on a visit.' I had never mentioned my dad or stepmother to him.

"'Your wife?!' I said. I guess I was just very naive. He explained that she ran his office back home in Tennessee and they had a very open marriage. Fortunately, I had enjoyed most of a delicious steak, so I excused myself and left.

"I was stunned! Nothing like that had ever happened to me before. Of course, I soon learned that my story was not too unusual in D.C. and the rumors about Kennedy put my little story to shame."

Donna shared other events for the Washington Secretaries History Project including participating in a "sit in" at the Nighthawk Restaurant while a senior at the University of Texas, Austin in 1961. Two years later, on August 28, 1963, Donna elbowed her way through the crowd at the Lincoln Memorial to get a glimpse of Reverend Martin Luther King delivering his "I Have A Dream" speech. In an upcoming post, she'll also describe the atmosphere in the Old Senate Office Building on Nov. 22, 1963 when she returned from lunch and was told by a guard that President Kennedy had just been assassinated.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

"Ex-secretaries of Washington, dig out your old steno pads and dish!"

Last Thursday, April 28, John Kelly of The Washington Post wrote a column about the launch of the Washington Secretaries History Project.

I was delighted with the response to the article from old colleagues, some of whom wished to remain anonymous, children of women who participated in the "Government Girls Project" and former Washington Post editor Sara Fitzgerald. Sara is about to publish a biography of Elly Peterson. Elly worked as a secretary in the Michigan Republican Party headquarters before going on to serve two stints as assistant chairman of the Republican National Committee in Washington, D.C.: 1963-64 and 1969-70 (when I was there). If you'd like to learn more about Elly's career in politics, visit Sara's blog titled, "What Would Elly Think?"

Monday, April 25, 2011

National Administrative Professionals Week 2011 -- Welcome!

In honor of National Administrative Assistants Week, April 24-30, I am officially launching the Washington Secretaries History Project blog.

This is an endeavor inspired by my interest as a former White House secretary, now a journalist, to document the rich history of secretaries and administrative professionals who have served in American politics and government for more than 200 years.

As background, I was six-weeks shy of my 23rd birthday in 1971 when I was hired as a secretary in the speech writing department of the Nixon White House. Prior to this, beginning at 19, I was a secretary in public relations at the Republican National Committee while a journalism student.

With the convergence of the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, the Watergate break-in and, of course, the women's movement, I recognized that I was a witness to a pivotal time in American history. I vowed to one day write a book.

Three decades later I began the task of planning a memoir while working as a freelance reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune, writing local history stories for the Sunday paper on a regular basis.

Background research soon revealed that my experiences were part of a larger, grander American story that could only be told by those who served in similar capacities before and after me.

This blog was created to generate a dialogue among veteran secretaries as well as today’s administrative professionals, working in the Information Age, who have never known what it was like to smear carbon paper on their fingers or been on the receiving end of the comment, “My girl will get it for you.”

Please jump in, tell your colleagues, and let the dialogue begin. If you prefer, email me directly at For more information about the project, visit:

Susan Foster, House Leader Gerald Ford, 1972

After graduating with a B.A. in psychology from Albion College in 1971, Susan Foster landed a clerical job with Cong. Charles Chamberlain, a Michigan Republican and friend of her father's. She had been on the job for less than a month when she received a call from "Roll Call" to photograph her for the "Hill Pinup" section of the February 3, 1972 issue.

"Now 'Pinup' and being a college graduate with graduate school aspirations didn't mesh for me," she said. "I asked the 40-something secretary sitting next to me what the Hill Pinup photographs were like. She let out a shout of delight, 'Here's your chance, girl! They want you to look very sexy -- you know, lots of cleavage and a lot of leg. You'll get calls from congressmen themselves!'"

Susan returned to the waiting photographer and said, "I have some photos from a friend's portfolio." Here is the photo (above) that appeared.

Shortly after this incident Susan was recruited as a legislative aide to Cong. William J. Keating, a Republican from Ohio.

"I was told that I would be the first female legislative aide to a Republican member of the House of Representatives," she recalls.

"My first week with Cong. Keating's office will always be remembered as one that was exciting and memorable to this day."

Susan went on to explain that one of the highlights of the job was attending the weekly legislative meeting in the offices of Speaker Gerald R. Ford. There was one problem: Keating's administrative aide was embarrassed to inform her that Ford did not allow women to attend the meeting. He added, "But if you want to try, I'm not going to stop you. The Boss doesn't mind either; I've already cleared it with him."

"The first thing I remember is how plush the carpet felt beneath my feet as we entered through heavy wooden doors that were wide open to accommodate the hundreds of aides filing in. The second thing I remember was what my fellow legislative aides suggested. I was to hold my head high, square my shoulders, and walk as if I belonged there. That worked for approximately 20 feet -- from the double-door entry of the suite to the single doorway to a large room that held legislative aides from the offices of every Republican House member. That doorway was framed by two well-dressed guards who, in retrospect, resembled the quintessential Secret Service agents. As I approached the door I could feel that all eyes were watching the scene about to unfold. The guards moved together in one synchronized side step, thus blocking the doorway. 'No secretaries allowed,' I was informed.

"'I'm not a secretary. I'm a legislative aide, and I would like to attend this week's meeting,' I said. The arms that folded across their chests spoke volumes, but there was one quiet sentence uttered with heavy emphasis on each word: 'Don't-come-back.'"

Later that day, with Cong. Keating's approval, Susan penned a letter to Speaker Ford personally. There was no response.

Susan went on to earn a masters in social work and become a celebrated medical writer and author. She is credited with the 2004 passage of a resolution issued by the International Firefighters Union for a moratorium on cell antennae on firehouse roofs, following a flood of emails from firefighters worldwide reporting confusion, disorientation, depression, sterility and worse.

Toni Hodges DeTuncq, The White House, 1973-74

When I left The White House to move to California in Feb. 1973, I recommended my former college roommate and girlfriend, Toni Hodges, to replace me. Toni reported to John Andrews and Ben Stein (who later went on to become an actor) in the speech writing department. I have collected several wonderful anecdotes from her over the years including this one:

"The night before Nixon resigned Julie, Dave, Tricia and Edward were pacing up and down in front of my office – wringing their hands. We all knew Nixon was making up his mind. Don’t know how, but we knew.

"The next day after he resigned, another secretary and I exited the White House through the East Wing to go to the Old Ebbitt Grill. We couldn’t have been gone longer than an hour. When we returned all the furniture had been changed. All of Nixon’s photos were gone from the hallways and replaced with family photos of the Fords and their pets."

Today, as principal of THD & Company, Toni provides end-to-end measurement and evaluation support to help organizations link their corporate training programs with their business needs and demonstrate the extent to which they are successful. She is a popular speaker and author of three books on return-on-investment (ROI) which are available on

Margaret Singer, The Red Cross, WWII

Two weeks ago I had the pleasure of interviewing Margaret Singer, now 98, for The Washington Secretaries History Project.

Her story began in 1935 when she left her family home in Westminster, Md. in search of work in the nation's capital.

"During the Depression there were no government programs and no unemployment," she said. "If you didn't work, you didn't eat."

Ms. Singer was called a "girl friday" back then.

"I worked in pitily little jobs, anything I could do," she said. "I was working for three lawyers but they had no business. Then they told me that the Red Cross was taking on clerical workers."

Jobs with the Red Cross were created when a series of tornadoes left a swath of destruction along the Atlantic coast from Maine to Florida.

Ms. Singer was hired as a temp for three days. She ended up working for the organization for 12 years.

In January 1942, a month after Pearl Harbor, she was transferred to Iceland which had been set up as a staging ground for American ships during the war.

"Women went because they were unhappy in their jobs and looking for adventure," she said.

That they found. Job descriptions were expanded from strictly clerical duties to include sewing and even entertaining naval officers.

"I did a lot of typing and preparation of reports," she said. "The only thing I was not good at was dancing. I hated to socialize but that was a big part of the job."

Ms. Singer said liquor flowed freely and that partying took place in the officers quarters located on the top level of the submarine.

"They had potted palms and everything you could eat," she said. "But if you weren't careful they would grab you and drag you into their state rooms."

Ms. Singer's entire story will be included in The Washington Secretaries History Project.