RICHMOND -- When he walked into his boss' office, Leonard P. Smith was 64. When he left, he was 77.

"I don't feel that old," said Smith, whose rapid aging was the result of a records check.

"I just don't think he remembered. He's pretty forgetful," said Carl Otto, Smith's boss at Garbers of Richmond Inc., where Smith is a janitor.

The discrepancy was uncovered by Otto and Sarah F. Mays, a Richmond school registrar who helps as many as 2,000 people a year document their lives to qualify for government benefits, identification cards and jobs.

Last year, Otto figured that Smith soon would turn 65 and probably would need help applying for Social Security. Smith had listed his birth date as Oct. 22, 1922, when he began work at Garbers in 1970.

But Otto ran into problems. The Virginia Department of Health had no record of a Leonard P. Smith born in 1922. After tracking other false leads, Otto finally found an ally in Mays.

"The only cooperation I've received from any bureaucracy in this country has been from the Richmond schools," Otto said.

Mays calculated the year Smith was most likely to have begun school. She then searched microfilm records for the year, with no success. Finally, she checked the year before that, and the year before that, and so on, until she found the right entry.

Leonard P. Smith had enrolled at Webster Davis Elementary School on Feb. 1, 1917. His mother listed his year of birth as 1909.

Mays, a 23-year employe of the Richmond school system, said she often runs across people whose records show them to be older than they say they are.

"I've had people anywhere from three to five years older," she said. "Some people get very upset. I've had people come in and just curse me up and down, and they say, 'That's wrong!' "

But she never had run across a 13-year discrepancy, she said.

Mays knows her school records can make or break a person's application for Social Security benefits. In the absence of a birth certificate, a letter from her is accepted as proof of age.

That's why she sticks to the records, despite pleas and threats, she said. That's why she also goes the extra mile -- checking other years and schools and keeping an eye out for variations in the spelling of names.

"I try to do my very best at things," she said.

For Smith, the news was mixed. He could have qualified for Social Security 13 years ago. Now he can get back only six months' worth of those benefits, Otto said.

But his monthly Social Security check will be much larger, and he can continue to work without affecting the benefits. He also qualifies for Medicare.

Smith said he has not decided whether to retire, and Otto has told him he doesn't have to. "He's the most reliable person I've got, really," Otto said.