Clinical psychologist Retta W. Dillon can hardly remember a time in her seven decades of life when she wasn't a D.C. government employe.

A native Washingtonian, Dillon was a summer recreation supervisor at 13, and at 16 was a practice teaching of the fourth grade. That was the beginning of a career dedicated to teaching and guiding D.C. children, most recently those in trouble. So far, her service has spanned more than 56 years, possibly the longest that anyone has worked for the city.

After teaching for more than 30 years, she switched to psychology rather than go to the back-to-basics school to which she had been assigned.

"That was not my philosophy of education," Dillon explains. "I felt you could not leave out art and drama and music and gymnastics."

Her Irish-born husband died in 1944, and her son and daughter are grown. But a spotted dog and three Siamese cats share her redwood-and-brick house, decorated with hook rugs, a well-clawed, brocade-covered chair and a portrait gallery of four generations of family members.

The peak of her career, Dillon says, was her part in a trial program to identify potential learning problems in children, starting in kindergarten, with teams of psychologists, social workers and doctors. But the three-year pilot project at 12 inner-city schools ended when the federal funding ran out and the city would not pick up the cost.

"I retired impulsively" when the program died, Dillon says, adding: "That was my low ebb."

Her retirement, 15 years ago, lasted for one month. Since then, Dillon has been a mental health specialist at the Children's Receiving Home, where runaways and 8-to-18-year-olds charged with crimes are sent.

"I continue, not only because I like it, but because I really consider it a privilege to have the opportunity to brighten a life, ease a current problem or maybe make a child a future that he might not otherwise have," Dillon says.