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.