John Kelly Column: GPO Employee Has Worked There for 63 Years

Virginia Saunders, 82, the Government Printing Office's longest-serving employee, has worked there since 1946.
Virginia Saunders, 82, the Government Printing Office's longest-serving employee, has worked there since 1946. (By John Kelly -- The Washington Post)
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By John Kelly
Monday, April 6, 2009

How old are you, I ask Virginia Saunders in that uniquely blunt way that reporters have.

"As old as my tongue and older than my teeth," she responds. Then she laughs. "It's true."

I happen to know that Virginia is 82 years old and that she's worked at the Government Printing Office on North Capitol Street longer than anyone else. She started there 63 years ago.

Do not think this is a column about Virginia's retirement. She has no plans to retire anytime soon.

"As long as my health is pretty good, I intend to hang in with my boots on," she says. "I tell myself: What would I do? You can't let your mind wander. I have to keep this program going."

The program Virginia works on is called the Congressional Serial Set. It's a bound compilation of every House and Senate document issued for each session of Congress. She's working on the 110th Congress now, and reports and lists are spread out on a table in front of her.

Virginia came to Washington from rural Pennsylvania during World War II, one of countless "government girls." She spent a year working for the FBI, typing fingerprint information onto 3-by-5 index cards. She can still tell a whorl from an arch, an arch from a loop.

She had to leave that job to go home and care for her mother, and when she returned to Washington, it was harder to find work. The war was over, the GIs had come back and they got first crack. She took department store jobs instead. Salesgirls at Kann's were paid $23 a week.

"I couldn't make it on $23 a week," Virginia says. "I thought I'd like to get back into the government."

She owes her GPO job to her voice. She sang soprano in the choir at her church, and another member thought she might be able to get her in the door.

"My voice is creaky now, through no fault of my own," Virginia says. "I've given up solo work." She sings in the choir at Emmanuel United Methodist Church in Beltsville, not far from where she lives.

She started at the GPO in February 1946 as a Grade 2. Today, she's a GS-11. Her title is program operations and evaluation specialist.

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