“Choose a job you love and you will never have to work a day in your life.” — Unknown
This week, I brought my mother to a restaurant near her so that she could join some of her former work pals for lunch. My mother retired from Illinois Institute of Technology Research Institute (IITRI) in 1990 after a twenty-year career there, but once a year the group still gets together. Their numbers have dwindled a bit, but the little party spent a lively two hours sharing new and old stories. Along with my mother were Marilyn, another secretary like my mother: Otto, now 92, a metallurgy engineer; Cris, another metallurgist; Mary, a former teacher who was the ex-wife of my mother’s now-deceased boss Maurice (yes, complicated); Bill, a retired technician; and another guy whose name I didn’t catch, still working for IITRI. Cris traveled from Winnetka, drove to Hyde Park to pick up Otto, then drove to Crestwood just for the occasion. A cursory glance at a map of Chicago shows that a trek like this is hours long. Yet, it was Cris who arranged the date, and happily drove the distance to see his old friends.
After staying home to raise her kids, Mom went back to work in 1967. By then I was in college, and my mother had time on her hands along with the costly task of educating the five of us. She began working for a temp agency with the Mad-Man-esque name of Right Girl, as in “Send me the right girl for the job!” Right Girl sent my mother to lots of offices and she made a strong impression in every one of them with her typing and organizational skills and task-oriented work ethic.
Frequently, she was sent to IITRI, to various offices on campus. Sometimes she worked for chemists in the tower building, and at other times she was sent to the separate building that housed the metallurgy department. Before long, the IITRI metallurgists wanted Mom as a permanent employee, not just a temp.
In January of 1970, she took a permanent position, under the stipulation that she would not work from June to September. She didn’t like the idea of her kids at home for the summer fending for themselves. IITRI agreed, and bought out her Right Girl contract. Then, in ‘75, Mary agreed to work year-round.
Mary worked as a secretary for Maurice, an engineer in metallurgy research, and when Maurice became the director, Mary supervised seven other secretaries in the department. Mary typed proposals for research funding, often for various government departments, including Defense. One of the big projects that Mary remembers was a coal gasification project. Its purpose was to create a system for extracting gases from coal mined in Illinois, a type of coal that is heavy with gaseous pollutants. The IITRI engineers eventually designed a machine that successfully extracted the gases, after millions of dollars had been spent toward this solution. Then, the government cancelled the project, never seeing it to its completion– a terrible example, according to my mother, of government’s wasteful spending practices.
Of course, there were always other projects going on. As my mother typed letters, proposals, and reports, she often didn’t understand much of the content of her work, loaded with scientific jargon. However, she recognized the correct context for phrases and words, and when the usage was incorrect, she made sure to address it. Spelling was always my mother’s strong suit, even before the autocorrect was there to help her with words like “metallurgical”.
Accuracy was of paramount importance, especially on proposals, and when an error was made, the secretary would often have to start over. Sometimes, though, a secretary would “Cut and Paste”. One of mom’s colleagues was an expert at this process. With surgical precision, she meticulously cut out the offending word from a document, using a sharp knife, and the pasted in the replacement typed on a teensy piece of paper. She was so skillful that the naked eye was unable to find the incision. Today, “cut and paste” is featured on every word processing software, but no knives or glue are required for the process.
When my mother began working at IITRI, she used an electric typewriter. If there were twenty letters to type, each letter was done separately. Then, Eureka! The word processor was invented, and the lives of secretaries changed forever. IITRI sent my mother and the other secretaries to classes to learn all that the word processor could do. No longer did each letter have to be typed separately. The word processor could simply change the name of the addressee. She was able to insert passages that had been saved into the processor’s memory. Imagine that! And no one needed to start over when an error was made. The task of “cut and paste” was changed overnight.
What did my mother love about her job? The people. In her department, she worked with people from a variety of cultures – Indian, Chinese, Russian, Korean, British, Filipino, and of course, Americans. She also loved a group she called the Lunch Bunch. Each day, she’d head to the main building to join a group of women from various departments at their round lunch table. The table was meant to seat eight, but chairs were squeezed in to accommodate the overflow crowd. Many of these women are still lunching together today; in fact, next week I’m taking my other to another lunch spot so she can catch up with a few of them.
I’m including a picture of the Lunch Bunch, seated at my mother’s dining room table soon after she moved into her condo in 1989.
Work was a pleasure for my mother. Her days were filled with interesting challenges and meaningful accomplishments, along with the camaraderie and friendships that have survived for decades. Isn’t this what makes all of our professional lives fulfilling?