Patricia O'Kelly, who recently retired after 40 years with the National Symphony Orchestra, with the late music director Mstislav "Slava" Rostropovich. (Daryl Donley)

[Two long-time Kennedy Center employees retired in April after a combined 95 years of service: Max Woodward and Patricia O’Kelly. Nelson Pressley profiles Max Woodward here.]

For 40 years, through five music directors and 47 tours, Patricia O’Kelly, 63, was a stalwart of the National Symphony Orchestra as the orchestra’s head of publicity. But when she came on board in 1976, it was for a full-time temporary position to help put together program books.

“I went into it with very few expectations,” she says, “and if anybody had told me I’d still be here now, I would have laughed maniacally.”

And although when she retired April 8 it was as managing director of media relations, she points out, “I’ve never stopped working on the program book.”

O’Kelly was the NSO’s institutional memory, adept at stamping out media fires before they got out of hand and always called on to do the countless thankless tasks that constitute orchestral dirty work — such as telling the great violinist Isaac Stern, before a concert in the historic amphitheater in Pompeii, that, because of the presence of feral cats, flea powder might be a good idea.

All that prepared her for her job was a passionate love of music. Born to two medical professionals, a doctor and a nurse, who worked in a town of 522 in Mississippi, “there was nowhere I could even study a foreign language within a radius of 40 miles.” When she was 5, however, her parents bought her a set of recordings called “Adventures in Music,” made by Howard Mitchell and the NSO and designed for use in the classroom. “I cherished those recordings,” she says.

And she became a musician, majoring in clarinet in college, and studying musicology in graduate school at the University of Maryland, where she sang with the chorus — and thus performed with the NSO. Antal Dorati, the NSO’s third music director, is, she says, “the only conductor I’ve known on the stage and backstage.”

But perhaps the iconic conductor of O’Kelly’s tenure was Mstislav Rostropovich, whom she calls “a human whirlwind” and who became a close associate and friend. “It was such a brimming vitality that it infused everything around him,” she says. As a musician, she also could appreciate his interpretations — “sometimes very unusual,” she says, “but always presented with such conviction and force.”

“I still remember the first time I heard him play the Shostakovich Fifth [Symphony],” she adds. It was a piece she knew well from her performing days. “But when he came to the last bit of the finale, [he] slowed everything down, so it was not the rejoicing we’d always been told; it was pure tragedy.”

And one of the wildest moments she said she remembers of her tenure was the day in 1981 when she got home, turned on her television and learned that Maxim and Dmitri Shostakovich, the composer’s son and grandson, had defected. Rostropovich was due back in the office the following Tuesday, but on the Monday, “I opened the door to his office,” she recounts, “and Maxim Shostakovich was staring me in the face. There was Dmitri; there was Slava. Slava said, ‘I think you see what we need.’ ”

A news conference already had been set up; what was needed, it turned out, was for O’Kelly to supply background to journalists who were suddenly eager for it. “Patricia,” she remembers one of them saying, “can you keep me from looking like an idiot on television?”

But while many who were with the orchestra under Rostro­povich view that era as a golden age, O’Kelly stresses that “every music director I’ve worked with has brought something unique that has added to the orchestra. Dorati instilled in them a sense of pride and accomplishment. Rostropovich brought unparalleled excitement. Leonard [Slatkin] brought a sound foundation of conducting technique and also a focus on American music.
Then Fischer and Eschenbach [brought a] renewed focus on the standard repertory.”

A highlight of the Slatkin years, she says, was a festival called “Journey to America: A Musical Immigration,” shortly after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. “After the shock of 9/11 and some of the feelings about immigrants,” she says, “it was extraordinary to see everyone there celebrating the contributions of immigrants” — a moment of musical healing at a difficult time.

The most challenging part of her job? “Riding the waves of technological evolution,” she says. “When I started at the NSO, I was mimeographing press releases and stuffing them into envelopes. . . . I used to have a photo budget so photos could be printed.” By the time she left, she said, she only had to hit “send” to distribute press releases, while photos were available to all in digital copies.

As for the favorite part of her job: “Unquestionably the ability to travel, tour and work in different countries.” She adds, “There is no logical reason I should have come from [my] background to this job, but thank God I did. It has been the most incredible privilege and the wildest roller coaster you can imagine, and I’ve loved every bit of it.”

And after so many concerts and so much music, how does she feel about orchestral music now?

“I can’t live without it,” O’Kelly says, “if you want to know the truth. [But I also] look forward to pursuing interests I have of necessity shoved onto the back burner for years. I plan to haunt the National Gallery. . . . And read the stacks of books sitting around my house.”

Read more: “Exit Max Woodward after four decades at the Kennedy Center”