It was the spring of '32, a time when men were men, women were women and the twain certainly weren't supposed to meet in a plumbing supply department.

So when a damsel chanced into Sidney Hechinger's hardware store at 15th and H streets NE and asked for some help with copper pipe, the inevitable happened.

"The boys on the floor high-hatted her, to be very honest about it," said Grace Swearingen. "And she got so hot she went up to Sidney Hechinger himself to complain."

But instead of dismissing the woman as a pain in the neck, Hechinger got a flash of inspiration. He went back to the rear office, where Grace Swearingen was writing up home improvement estimates and uttered these fateful words:

"Grace, will you go on the floor and sell?"

She did, and like Satchel Paige, she hasn't looked back. On May 21, at the age of 79, Grace celebrated 50 years as a plumbing supply saleswoman for Hechinger's. With her dancing eyes and ginger hair, she is still going strong -- and she expects to continue.

"I believe in keeping going," said Grace, as we chatted the other day at Hechinger's Wisconsin Avenue store, where she has worked since 1968. "The money's nice, for one thing. But the main thing is, you live longer when you keep going.

"Besides," she said, "I sell more than the men." That attitude will get you over sexist hurdles anytime.

According to Grace, however, most of the sexism comes from the same sort of customer who started it all: women.

"I do get women who say, 'How can a woman know anything about plumbing?' " Grace said. "I think they're just dumb for asking that. I studied plumbing. I worked."

Worked at plumbing? A nice woman like you? Yup. Implausible as it may sound, plumbing beckoned Grace Swearingen in much the same mystical way that music called Mozart. It seemed to be foreordained, written on the wind.

"It was up in Atlantic City, where I used to go on vacation," Grace recalled. "I was wandering down the boardwalk one day. I didn't know a thing about plumbing. There was an exhibit at one of the hotels--it must have been a convention or something, I guess. So I went in, and the whole hotel was full of pipes and wrenches. I was fascinated."

Soon, Grace was reading how-to-build-bathroom books on her lunch hour. In the evening, she would tinker with sinks. When Sidney Hechinger asked her the question that changed her life, Grace Swearingen couldn't have been more ready.

On May 21, the Wisconsin Avenue staff gave Amazing Grace a picnic in honor of her half-century. Of course, she was asked then, as she is asked always, how much longer she will go on. After all, most nearly 80-year-old plumbing sales people would have been given gold wrenches long ago.

"I told them, 'I won't retire as long as I have my health,' " Grace said.

She still has it. We wish her more of it. Old man Hechinger knew a winner when he saw one.