She took the summer off from her job to work in the last campaign of the incumbent Republican president. A job at the Republican National Committee turned into a job with the Inaugural Committee. And when her boss finally called to ask whether she was ever coming back to her job at Stetson University, Georgiana H. Sheldon replied: "Send my things, I'm going to stay."
With that decision 30 years ago, Sheldon launched a government career that took her to the House, the Peace Corps, the Defense Department, the Agency for International Development, the Civil Service Commission and the Federal Power Commission and its successor agency.
Last Friday, she stepped down after eight years on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, its first and only woman member and the last of the original commissioners to resign. She makes no bones about the fact that she would have liked to have been reappointed, but recognizes that a different group of Republicans runs the town now than in the days when she went to work for Republicans Thruston and Rogers C.B. Morton.
"I would not know this Republican network," she says. "Every administration has its own style, every administration has its own method of doing business. This happens to be a different way of doing business than some."
She pauses, choosing her words carefully. "I find that, looking at the business of government in general, . . . the last few administrations have not really understood how government operates.
"There is a cadre of professional people in the government which makes government work," she says. "And I believe it is the political appointee's responsibility -- indeed his mandate -- to take your professional people, let them know what you want to do, and they'll help you do it.
"It's when you arrive in the city of Washington with an idea that you're going to change the government, that it's all bad, of course there's going to be resistance."
From her vantage point, Sheldon, who is 61, is deeply concerned about the state of the government work force. "In 10 years," she says, "I think we're going to have less than mediocrity . . . . In the career system or in the political appointees, we're not attracting the best and brightest people . . . .
"We used to get the top of the law schools, the top of the engineering schools, coming into government," and after several years they would take a job in the private sector and share their government experiences.
But Americans, she says, don't know what government is all about anymore. "They have preconceived ideas that all those bureaucrats sit around and do nothing all day. After a few years, I can tell you that's not true. I think there's a vast difference in what's happened to the perception of government in the last few years. And I'm very concerned about it."
She cites articles and speeches raising similar questions by people like Federal Reserve Board Chairman Paul A. Volcker and thinks it might be a cause she could "pour her energies into." So far, she has no definite plans.
Her career, however, has been highlighted by "firsts." In 1969, she became the first woman appointed to a high-ranking Defense Department job, deputy director of what was then the Defense Civil Preparedness Agency. The appointment of the first female generals was still about two years away.
She launched a campaign to break down the "male-only" rule at the Pentagon's athletic center. "It was a major accomplishment," she recalls with a laugh. "It took three years."
After a stint as director of foreign disaster relief at AID, the Ford White House said her file was "flagged for the next Republican member of the Civil Service Commission." She took that job, with the understanding that if President Gerald R. Ford was elected in 1976, she would be named chairman. That, of course, didn't happen.
Instead, President Jimmy Carter tapped her for a Republican seat on the Federal Power Commission, FERC's predecessor. Carter, she recalls, appointed about seven Republican women to seats on regulatory boards.
Did that create a precedent for "a woman's seat" on the regulatory commissions? "There's not a woman's seat on this one anymore," she says crisply. Her seat is being turned over to Charles A. Trabandt, an aide to former Interior secretary William P. Clark and former chief counsel of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Sheldon describes him as a "very bright person, certainly enthusiastic and energetic."
But she is concerned because she thinks fewer top federal jobs are going to women. At meetings of Reagan administration appointees at her level, she says, "there were about three of us out of a group of 80."
Reagan reappointed her to a term that ended last October. After thinking it over for some time, she said she let the White House know that she wanted to be reappointed. The only thing that upsets her now, she says, is that officials there waited until the day before they announced Trabandt's nomination to tell her officially that she was being replaced by him.
"My only quarrel with it is just not having the common courtesy of either calling the chairman or calling me" when the decision had been made, she says. "That doesn't take very much."
A White House official said, "Certainly no slight was intended. If that did occur, it was because it was felt she had already been made aware of the decision through other White House channels."
Sheldon had experienced similar treatment before. As a former vice chairman of the Civil Service Commission, "I called Don Devine [director of the Office of Personnel Management] early in his tenure and said I had been over there several years and if he wished to talk to me, fine. And I never even had the courtesy of a call back."
"But," she says at another point, "I've survived before the FERC, I shall survive after the FERC."
And the key to surviving in Washington?
" . . . Instead of trying to do a political job, do a professional job. I have not in my experience, in any of the political appointments I have had except perhaps on the Hill, . . . sought to put politics above the business at hand."
"And," she adds, "that's probably why people perceive me as not being in tune particularly with this administration. Because I do not do that -- and I cannot do that. It's not my style and it's not my nature.
"There shouldn't be any question about my loyalty to the Republican Party -- I started licking stamps when I was 5 years old for my grandfather, who was county chairman. I wouldn't know what else to do. But there are those who question my loyalty to it. Fine, I don't.
"Everybody has a different way of doing it."