When Mildred C. Parsons began her FBI career, Lou Gehrig had just said farewell to the New York Yankees, "Gone With the Wind" was at the movies, and J. Edgar Hoover was an untarnished symbol of American law enforcement.
Sixty years later, Parsons is still reporting for duty to the FBI's Washington field office, answering phones, writing letters and doing a host of other secretarial tasks. She is a much-heralded model of energy and endurance: She hasn't missed a single hour to illness in her entire FBI career.
"The bureau has undergone a lot of change in its 90-year history," said Jimmy C. Carter, assistant FBI director in charge of the field office. "She's the only person to stay on the job for 60 years. It's neat to be in the same office with the person who has the most seniority with the FBI."
Carter was among scores of current and former FBI supervisors and employees who paid tribute to Parsons last week in a series of ceremonial events, including a dinner, coffee hour and other get-togethers. The dynamo everyone calls "Millie" has a cubicle just outside Carter's office that was filled with flowers, candy and other gifts sent by admirers across the nation.
"Hey, Millie, you think you're going to keep this job?" one friend asked.
"I haven't made up my mind whether I like it," she deadpanned.
Moments later, she reflected on all the anniversary hullabaloo. "It's really unbelievable," she said. "It's been nice to see so many people and be remembered. But I can't believe it's been 10 years since I had my 50th. I can't believe it's been 60 since I started. It seems like each year goes faster and faster, but that might be because I'm getting older."
She's 86. Every day she's up by 5 a.m., leaves her house in Takoma Park and walks six blocks to the neighborhood bus stop. Sometimes she needs a flashlight to navigate her way in the dark. She takes a short ride on the K-6 bus to the Fort Totten Metro station and then travels to Judiciary Square.
No matter the weather, she's at her desk by 7. To get there, she walks through a long corridor that is filled with pictures of the field office's top leaders, old and new. Parsons has worked for 30 heads of the field office, starting with Guy L. Hottel and winding up with Carter. She can name them all but won't be drawn into any discussions about who she liked best.
"No two are the same," is all she'll say about her many bosses. "I guess I've gotten along with them or I wouldn't have been around 60 years."
Most days, Parsons is at her desk until 5 or so, very much in the thick of things in the always-bustling office. She recently had to retire her electric typewriter after more than 25 years. "It wore out," she said. In all the changes at the FBI, the computer might be her biggest challenge. She uses it, but warily. "I don't think the computer likes me," Parsons said.
Parsons began her FBI career in September 1939 after working nine years as a secretary for the Woodward & Lothrop department store. After starting out as a junior clerk-typist at FBI headquarters, she quickly moved to the Washington field office, where she's been a stenographer, radio room supervisor, squad secretary, receptionist and general jack-of-all-trades.
"I thought if I lasted a year I'd be lucky," she said. "I thought, 'I'm working for the FBI, for the government? My goodness!' "
During World War II, she routinely worked seven days a week, sometimes reporting for duty at 8 a.m. one day and toiling until 5 p.m. the next. During the 1950s--before the FBI hired female agents--she joined the men on occasional surveillance details. Over the years, she's typed a storehouse of confidential information and prided herself at her ability to keep a secret.
Her husband, Harry Parsons, also a federal government worker, encouraged her along the way. He died in 1967; they were married 25 years.
The other day, Parsons pulled out a glossy black-and-white photograph of her wedding from a box of memorabilia. Then came the other pictures, showing Parsons with a who's-who of FBI directors. There was Hoover shaking her hand for 20 years of service; Clarence M. Kelley, honoring her on her 35th anniversary; William H. Webster giving her a pin for 40 years; William F. Sessions giving her a diamond-studded pin for her 50th anniversary; and Louis J. Freeh weighing in with a crystal eagle in honor of her 55th. Other photos showed Parsons with generations of field office leaders, including Robert M. Bryant, who as the FBI's deputy director is now second in command to Freeh.
"I was her 26th special agent in charge," Bryant said. "She calls me No. 26. I feel like one of Zsa Zsa Gabor's husbands."
The FBI came up with a special 60-year medal of achievement to honor Parsons this year, and co-workers gave her a crystal shaped like the U.S. Capitol.
Parsons got national attention when she hit the 50-year mark, and then again in 1995 when the Baltimore Orioles' Cal Ripken Jr. broke Gehrig's record for most consecutive baseball games. Readers of USA Today nominated indestructible workers who "would make Cal proud." Parsons's tenure was bested by a 59-year streak accrued by a 77-year-old Chicago hardware store employee.
As a practical joke, a co-worker telephoned Parsons and posed as the hardware man, saying he saw her photo in USA Today, happened to be in Washington and wanted to get together. She politely turned down the impostor.
On another occasion, the same co-worker engineered a scam in which Parsons got a pay stub showing she had taken an hour of sick leave. That episode didn't end in laughter. Parsons was ready to take on the payroll department.
The streak means a lot to her. She has been to work through a broken ankle and broken wrist. But when she broke her wrist for the third time a few years ago, she felt compelled to use personal leave to cover four days out. "I was not sick," she said, explaining why sick leave was not an option.
"I've been very, very fortunate," she said. "I get a flu shot every year and haven't had the flu yet. I can't say I've really had a cold. Maybe a sniffle. If I get a headache, I don't stay home and think about it. I come here."
Despite the pressures of the job, Parsons said she never dwelt upon work-related concerns once she got home. "I just forget about it," she said.
She attributes her overall good health to plenty of exercise. She is an award-winning ballroom dancer gearing up for local and national competitions this fall in the fox trot, waltz, tango, rumba, cha-cha and other dances.
"She's at our gold level, the highest level we have," said Gabe Gamboa, 29, her instructor at the Arthur Murray dance studio in Silver Spring.
The dance floor is fun, but "the FBI is like home to me," Parsons said.
"They tell me I'm like that battery; I keep going and going. I know I'll have to leave sometime. But right now I cannot say that I am going to leave at a certain time. I keep thinking, 'What am I going to do?' I can't stay at home--I have to be active. I've had people say, 'Why not retire and get a part-time job?' Why should I do that? If I'm going to work, I'll stay where I am."
That's good news to her colleagues in the D.C. field office.
"She's a role model," Carter said, marveling at Parsons's unfailing professionalism. "It's kind of hard for people to impress you with a not-so-valid reason why they should be off work when she is here every day."
CAPTION: Mildred C. Parsons stands in front of photos of field office chiefs for whom she's worked.
CAPTION: J. Edgar Hoover congratulates Parsons on her 20th anniversary with the bureau, in 1959.