Sunday, April 18, 2010

Once upon a time, there were Secretaries.

In observance of Administrative Professionals Week, 2010.

Someone I admire on Facebook wanted a secretary last week. Soon, someone commented on her status update, wanting a maid. Feeling a bit angry, I’m glad I noticed her Facebook update because at 5:15 a.m., it jolted me into wide awake and gave me a strong urge to share here.


She was so proud that she could type 99 wpm accurately on a 1940’s Royal manual typewriter. I saw her bang away on that 200 lb. machine, often on its stand she kept in the corner of the kitchen.

Sun Building 1939

The Baltimore Sunpapers, 1939

Mom worked at The Baltimore Sunpapers in the early fifties and was the most accurate typist in the pool. I shared her pride. Not a secretary, and never having the privilege of making and serving coffee to the executives in the outer offices - you know, the ones with windows. I did, thirty years later, and I’m still outraged about it.

My secretarial career path began after high school with a receptionist and payroll clerk job for an electrical contractor where I met my husband. Summer of 1973, my first forty-hour paycheck was a net of $59.02. I moved on to better things after a few months, wanting the Mary Tyler Moore lifestyle.


Two jobs later, I took a position at the corporate offices of a world-wide manufacturer in Jessup, Maryland. Those corporate secretaries knew what was expected of them, and I learned…don’t be a minute late arriving to work, don’t leave a minute early, and don’t take more than your 30-minute lunch break and don’t ever, ever leave the building between 8am and 5pm. Ahem? Every morning we wiped our serving tray clean and delivered several cups of hot coffee, made to order, to the managers, directors, and executives in our group. When I learned coffee serving was part of my on-the-job training, I felt sick. I remember looking into the eyes of that Stepford secretary, expecting to feel or see some sort of displeasure, reluctance, or pause, but I saw nothing. What bullshit, expected and accepted in 1977 and this hippie chick was sour about it.

Early 80’s is when sexual harassment in the workplace came into the forefront across the country. Good old smiling Albert, whom I considered to be a very funny, dirty old man, rolled his squeaky 1950’s government-issue chair to lean toward his doorway and watch my small buttocks sway down the hall after I left him with his fresh cuppa coffee. By 8:15 a.m., he was my third delivery. I’d arrive at his office, Good morning, Al, or Mr. Smith, depending on my mood. Enjoy your decaff. He didn’t know that on my way out of his office, I mumbled, Choke on it, Albert. I didn’t dislike Albert. My rebel within was the problem. I was always happy to fetch a cuppa coffee for any boss who would fetch a cup for me in return. Albert never brought me coffee but he brought me sparkling gems from his business trips to Brazil. So, I liked old Al.

Young Ray was a Cost Accountant who worked in a cubicle near our secretarial pool, not quite ranked to be served coffee. We were flirty playmates and had the most fun playing rubber band wars when the office became way too tense. After the whole company sat in a high priority meeting to hear of sexual harassment rules and regulations, Ray and the rest of us returned to our work areas, and on the way, he swatted my behind with a manila file folder. I thought it was funny as did he, however, Ray was severely reprimanded as there were witnesses. Poor Ray, what a dope.


There was an Executive Secretary promotion for me in Finance soon after I joined the company which forced me to brush up on my Gregg shorthand for a man who always dictated letters of two hundred and thirty-five sentences that should have been condensed into ten. No one read his painfully long memorandums. No one wanted to refer to a dictionary to understand them, either. He’d recline in his chair, picking at a blemish on his chin that later turned into an enormous staph infection, and thought and dictated and thought and dictated some more, until I thought I might need to scream, “Dammit Howard! Spit it out and be done with it, please?” I had to transcribe his awful messes on an electric typewriter that was non-correcting. Draft after draft after draft. Yes, in my mid-twenties, I was as impatient as I am now, although slightly timid. I was fond of Howard and often worried how the huge amount of job stress affected him.

A class-conscious company, the secretaries were never invited to lunch out of the building with our superiors, except on Secretaries Day. Nancy, a very good friend and about fifteen years my senior, was an ultra conservative professional dresser as opposed to my more casual, hippie chick style. I liked to wear false eyelashes that would occasionally fall into my soup at restaurants and dyed my hair platinum. The stories I could tell... Oh, I wore high heels, suits, pantyhose, and leaned toward the more professional look because of the job. Nancy was a highly skilled, strong-willed woman, who later became secretary to the president of the company. She insisted we go AWOL once a month for lunch out of the building. There was a dive diner truck stop in Jessup called Three Nines with the best grilled cheese sandwiches ever made so we phone-ordered two of them with barrel pickles on the side and two Michelob beers, hopped into her sea green Chevy pick-up with a shift on the column, sped to the truck stop laughing all the way, ate the grilled cheese, drank the beers, giggled and belched, and were back to our desks in less than forty minutes with leftover barrel pickles in our handbags. Thrilling and downright liberating. Let the SOBs say anything negative. We’ll kick their asses! Yes, we would have…

Nine to Five

Fast forward several years, passed a perfect job I adored, a baby girl, and two in-state moves. As Secretary/Registrar at a private high school in Bel Air, Maryland for fifteen years, I loved that job and still wish I hadn’t left eight years ago in June...
On Secretaries’ Day at the high school, early nineties, the administration offered a dripping wet, long-stemmed red rose to every female on faculty and staff and on the same day, gathered all the secretaries and clerical staff to inform us that we’d have our salaries and hours cut due to budget constraints. I’ll never forget it. Our main office secretary, dear Lorraine, cried all afternoon at the insensitivity of it all. Why take from the secretaries and not the rest? Wrong, wrong, wrong! And, I was still taking ridiculous dictation. I hated “bringing my book” but at least I didn’t need to serve coffee.
The dismissal bell loud in the building, the sounds of students in the halls, lockers banging, phones ringing, I looked at my boss, a caring and talented human being, as he sat in the guest chair facing my desk. He was dictating his record of a classroom observation. He thought for minutes at a time. I tapped my pencil on my book. I shifted in my seat and even turned around to look out the window at the sunny afternoon behind me. I could have filed my fingernails and blew bubblegum bubbles like Mrs. a-Wiggins and he wouldn’t have noticed. He thought some more and managed a sentence or two every five minutes.

Mrs. Wiggins

I leaned across my desk and faced him. At last, I was determined and serious. I whispered,

Gary. We need to stop this. It’s the nineties. No one takes dictation anymore. Did you know that?

He smiled in a curious way and before he asked the question I answered.

You talk, I’ll type. Neither of us have time for this sitting and waiting game. What I loved about Gary was that he let me rule most of the time. I was Office Goddess.

What will be even better, Gary, is after you type your draft, send it to me via “e-mail”, and I’ll fix it up and make it look pretty.

Got that?

You will understand all of this if you are old enough to remember manual typewriters, correction tape, IBM Selectric II, mimeograph machines and stencil cutters, carbons, copyset, and the word processing softwares – Wang, Multi-Mate, WordStar, WordPerfect, and finally MS Word.

I wonder if anyone who has worked in an office remembers creating an elaborate document that took too many hours to construct, using Rubber Cement to copy and paste and gobs of White-Out. Those were your best editing tools. You waved that prize-winning document around the office and blew it dry for thirty minutes. Happy to finally make photocopies, you sashay to the office copy machine, mistakenly place it in the document feeder, press start, and in an instant, see your masterpiece get chewed up beyond recognition and lodged in the innards of the freaking machine of red flashing lights. My God! The horror! If you had a hammer!


Secretaries are a memory now. They made the world go around. I’m glad they’ve been replaced by a new variety of professionals who still make the world go around, who can make or break a business, and who are not expected to brew a cuppa coffee the way we did.

However, those were the days when we walked across the hall to meet face to face with a colleague. We talked about business and pleasure and flirted face to face. Oh, the body language is something else! Or, we dialed an extension and heard a voice, a tone, and a perhaps heard a smile. There were firm handshakes. There was no texting, no obsession with a tiny multi-function computer stuck to the palm of our hand, and instead of having our eyes lowered with chin on chest all day long we held our head high and saw real life happen before our eyes. We wrote letters, mailed postcards, and made long-distance phone calls to chat with a friend for a while.
Imagine THAT!


Caroline said...

Bless you, Mary for being that Office Goddess! I don't know what we'd do without our Tess...she is secretary, friend, mom to every student, nurse, and everything else you remember doing.
We are treating her to a trip to our favorite greenhouse, a gift from the staff, it isn't enough, but she'll love it and I'll get to visit her garden later this summer and sip a glass of iced tea and have a great time seeing what she has added.

KGMom said...

Oh, yes--I remember those days. Almost as surreal as your experience was being a woman boss. Some of "my" secretaries didn't want to work for a female boss. Interesting how the gender dynamic works out in that context.
And, I am proud to say, that in one job--mid 1980s--I was "dictating" but into a central word processing recording. The men in the office still called in the secretary AND her book to take dictation. I thought that a colossal waste of time--tying up two people for one job.

Mary said...

Caroline, that's sweet to talk about Tess that way.

Donna, I've had a few female bosses and none of them were a pleasure to work for/with. One of them was a terrible nightmare. I'll take a male boss, thank you ;-)

Jayne said...

I could write this same post about being a nurse in the early 80's. Jumping up to always give the MD your chair in the nurses station, AND hauling his charts around for him as he made rounds, following behind him like a puppy dog. Ack.

Secretaries/Adm. Assistants are the difference between a successful place of employment and a chaotic work environment. You RULE!

(Loved the memories of Mrs. a-Wiggins!)

Lisa at Greenbow said...

Wow, did this ever bring back memories. Great write up. Great read. I can tell your bosses were mightly blessed to have you around and you were (are) worth more money.

NatureWoman said...

I was a legal secretary / paralegal for seven years and there was everything you mentioned here - ugh. Then I became an engineer because I was tired of the boob/ass grabbing, etc. etc. And working for a female lawyer - the freakin' worst thing of my life. I will never work for a woman again.

PJ said...

THAT was wonderful!! HA, many related things can be said about many trades... IMAGINE when busdrivers were having a problem with a child and they stopped and kicked the child off! ..and parents didn't call and say ,"my Johnny didn't do anything"

Anonymous said...

I don't have a secretary, and I'm not the boss. I'm somewhere in between. Nonetheless, the office boss expects me to chip in for his secretary's card and gift on Admin. Prof. Day. And then his sccretary will expect me to chip in for the boss's card and gift on Boss' Day. I just wish they'd get rid of these so-called holidays. All their good for is making money for Hallmark. Afterall, shouldn't we appreciate everyone every day?

Mary said...

Agree, Anon!

Ruth said...

Great post Mary. I was never part of the corporate world but can identify with Jayne's comments about nurses and doctors. We no longer have a "secretary" in our department at the hospital and we are each responsible for our own letters, faxing, copying, messaging.

Catbird said...

There are so many things I love about this post. I read it on Sunday, then thunk upon it till now. My mom went back to work in the secretarial pool at LaSalle College a few years after Dad died. Her brother was the Chairman of the English department there, but she was by no means a shoo-in for the job. I remember her brushing up on her her rusty shorthand and typing skills (she'd been to business school), doing exercises and timed typing tests. She got the gig, and went from the pool to the Psych and Math departments, where she made friends, and, for some strange reason, represented a threat to one female professor who resented the presence of a smart secretary (though Mom was by no means the only one. But since her big brother was the Chairman of the English Department, Day and Evening Divisions, the biological connection was undeniable.)

She then became the departmental secretary for the Dean of Arts and Sciences. Brother Muldoon found Mom indispensable. "Mare! Where's my (fill in the blank)?!?" "Mare? Did you see my (whatever the hell it was he couldn't find)?" "Mare?! How do you spell...?"

Secretaries, or whatever they're called now, are, like nurses, the keys to the Unviverse. And they STILL don't get paid or appreciated enough. So thanks, Mare. From me, and from Mom, AKA "Mare?!?!?"

Kathie Brown said...

Mary, my how the world has changed! I remember seeing seperate listings in the want ads when I was young as "Jobs for men" and "jobs for women." That would never be tolerated now! I do miss calling an office and talking to a real person though. BTW, I flunked out of typing in high school.

dguzman said...

Those were the days, my friend.

I've known so many secretaries who've been the reason I even bothered to go to work some days--they were friends, mentors, mothers, and co-conspirators, teaching me more about big bidness than any college course ever could.

And man, I'm blown away by your mom's typing speed. I can type about 95 wpm on a good computer keyboard; that old manual typewriter would reduce me to tears!

cindy said...

I spent 2 years learning Gregg shorthand, then went on to vocational school and had another year of ABC shorthand. Graduated...first job... dictating machine!!!! Three, count them, three years of shorthand!! Worked for an elementary school. Made coffee once...he never asked for another cup!

Anonymous said...

Oh, I do remember White-out. It was like cement after you had it awhile. Remember (gasp!) CARBON PAPER?

Anyone remember the TV show Private Secretary with Ann Southern?

I learned shorthand, but found that my typing was faster than my shorthand. LOL!

Cathy said...

Honey. You need to submit this somewhere.

Amazing Mary. My God. What a eye-opener for we cloistered women who never had to deal with the culture of the corporate world in those day.

But I'm tallying the life skills you had to develop to get by.

Rich. Very rich.

Do you ever hear from those people from the past? Do any associations survive the rigid pecking order of the 9 to 5 world?

Great piece, Amazing Mary!

PS. I can imagine your feelings about your mother and the great injustices of her day.

JeanMac said...

Mary, you brought back a lot of memories for me!

TR Ryan said...

This is beautiful, splendid writing. And I am glad you don't let the premise of a nature blog stop you from writing outside of the box. After all, it is nature that roots us and allows us to explore like a kite unleashed but still held firm in a child's hand. You are a goddess of the most extraordinary kind. You have a remarkable way of telling a story that crosses so many boundaries. Please don't ever stop telling your stories. We need them.

Anonymous said...

Mary, I was searching the internet for pricing on an Antigue Secretary and ran across your piece. Not to say you are antique, lol.
What memories it brought back to me... Unfortunately, it also touched on present times. With the cuts in funding, our school corporation is cutting hours, days and holiday pay of our secretaries. Eighteen plus years does not make a difference.

Mary said...

Thanks, Anon. Wishing better circumstances for your group. During budget crunches, big corps nail upper management while small educational institutions nail the support staff. BIG mistake ;-)

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