A Public Servant to the Last

"As long as I'm here," the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's Ed McGaffigan told colleagues, "I'm going to be dedicated to making you all improve." (By Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)
By Elizabeth Williamson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 6, 2006

In 1961, Ed McGaffigan Jr. was a seventh-grader from Boston watching the inauguration on television when a president told him to ask what he could do for his country.

The son of an Irish immigrant laborer, McGaffigan had a ready answer, as did many of his generation: He could work for his country.

That inspired a three-decade career that included stints at the State Department, the White House, the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, Capitol Hill and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, where last month McGaffigan became the agency's longest-serving commissioner.

McGaffigan, who turns 58 on Friday, would normally have many more years of service ahead. Instead, he is fighting an illness that threatens to vanquish him, and he is taking on one last assignment: closing his career in a way that inspires others to consider public service.

"I do what I do out of a deep sense of appreciation for the opportunities that this country gives people like my father and me," he said. "I'm proud to have been there, and proud to serve with a bunch of people as dedicated as I am.

"I hope there's another generation."

One recent rainy morning, McGaffigan, a physicist with thick gray hair and a runner's build, took his place at the front of the NRC's conference room for a celebration of his career. A line of masking tape on the carpet showed him where to stand, and he placed the toes of his shoes precisely on it.

There were jokes, gifts and tributes. "He can quote the most obscure regulations and give exact details on how they were written," said fellow commissioner Pete Lyons. He presented McGaffigan, a serial marathoner, with a specially produced audiobook to listen to while he runs: a recitation of 10 CFR 3240, "tests required for tritium-powered auto lock illuminators," a reg so obscure it stumped even McGaffigan.

Then it was McGaffigan's turn. "As long as I'm here," he said, "I'm going to be dedicated to making you all improve."

He wept a little. But he did not take his shoes off the tape.

McGaffigan was the first in his family to attend college, earning a physics degree, with honors, from Harvard, and master's degrees from the California Institute of Technology and Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. Since his education was underwritten by taxpayers, he decided, he said, to give them the benefit of the technical expertise they paid for.

While at Cal Tech, he took the foreign service exam, and in 1976 he joined the State Department. During that time, he served in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, overseeing international scientific programs, and worked for two years in the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, reporting on science, technology and atomic energy.

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