Intangible benefits

Wow, I sure went from Debbie Downer to floating on Cloud 9 in a flash, didn’t I? I burst out laughing at the office yesterday afternoon, when I saw that the Big Dude had posted a comment at his own blog, in which he said to me, “Cool post!”  Never been so glad to admit I had the wrong perception about what was going on as I am about how key officials at the present day NARA view people such as I.

Still, I’m going to have to be a little bit careful as to how I write this post. No, not because of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).  It’s because I largely agree with what AOTUS David Ferriero wrote in his last post, “NARA and the IRS.” That means I can’t add to the rebel credentials I’ve been flaunting for the last 20 years. (“Oh, Maarja, someone is nice to you, like that never happened before, and you become such a tool!” LOL.)

But remember NARA, Spunky Maarja still is here. My friends know that when I was mugged on an evening walk around 2004, the robber may have knocked me to the ground and grabbed my purse (we fought, he won). But I took off running after him, yelling, “Stop, thief, help!” Although I couldn’t make up much ground—he was half a block ahead of me–I rattled him so much with my yelling, he flung my purse at a passerby who was walking a dog, jumped into a getaway car driven by an accomplice, and took off. (Muggings are very uncommon in my very quiet and safe neighborhood, by the way.)  So I lost nothing, got my stuff back right away.  That part of me always is there, ready to be tapped into, whether it’s on NARA issues or anything else!

I’ve written in previous posts about a book that I really like, Driving Fear out of the Workplace by Kathleen Ryan and Daniel Oestreich.  (They also wrote The Courageous Messenger.)  It addresses some of the same issues Ferriero did in his latest post. In fact, I mentioned it in an email I sent to a senior NARA official last fall, in which I offered some suggestions for how the agency could improve its well-intended but not there yet social media efforts. In that same email, I mentioned former Nixon Presidential Materials Project director Jim Hastings, for whom I worked from 1979 to 1988, the span of his directorship.  Jim is pictured, wearing a Senators t-shirt, at the National Archives’ anniversary picnic at Hains Point in 1984.  My sister Eva is in the foreground.  Drinking beer, of course (it was a National Archives’ event, after all).

Hastings and other great bosses for whom I’ve worked offer good models for some of what the Big Dude is working to achieve at NARA. For one things, Hastings started out at the National Archives as an archives-technician. I can relate to that. I did, too. In fact, I came into government as a GS-4 clerk typist while I was in college.

I worked as a secretary at the U.S. Customs Service while in grad school (full time employee, too). Of course, I had little spare time and there were periods when I seemed to be spending all my waking hours either at the office or working on my studies. Although this was before flexitime and adjusted work schedules, my boss was kind hearted enough to informally allow me to take extended lunch breaks to go to class – I didn’t work that far from campus — and then work later into the evening to make up the time. I was so exuberant when I finished my last day of research at the Library of Congress, I walked home from there—and at the time, I lived near the Iwo Jima Memorial in Arlington, Virginia. That’s quite a walk from Capitol Hill!

I was lucky that I had bosses who treated me well and knew when to set aside the rulebook and to be flexible. That’s why I like the part in Big Dude’s post about transformation depending “more on having the right governance, leadership, direction, and authority than on rules and mandates.” I never could have gotten through grad school and still worked full time, if my bosses hadn’t let me quietly make up time and come up with my 40 hours a week my own way.

Customs never was able to promote me very much—I only worked there 3 years and was a GS-6 Procurement Assistant when I transferred to NARA. But I got other, non-monetary, intangible benefits. That I was chosen to pose for the uniforms booklet published in 1976 was really cool. The photographer snapped a lot of photos, some of which never would be used. I mean, would either of the two poses below convince anyone that I was a law enforcement officer, despite the gun? (They ended up using a shot of me in the summer uniform; the two below show the winter one.) I don’t think so! But it was fun.  Anything fun can be a real intangible benefit.

One of my favorite NARA videos to date is the one about St. Louis and records center operations. I flash back to my days at Suitland (some of the Nixon materials were in Vault 2 until 1982). Been there, done that! Know some of the challenges.

I hated the rickety ladders we had to climb to reach materials on the top (14th) row of the shelving at the records center. When I was in the vault by myself, I sometimes went up the permanent ladder that led to the air conditioning equipment, stepped from there to the top of the row from which I needed an FRC box, crawled along the top of the 14th row until I got to the box I needed, then crawled back to the air conditioning unit and back down. (Don’t fail me, location register, I don’t wanna do this more often than I have to, ha!) Sounds hazardous and I probably would have been smacked for breaking the rules. But it beat standing on the ladder and trying to lift a heavy box from the 14th row, LOL. I was strong enough (although the heaviest boxes were a bit of a challenge) but I’m not very tall.

We went through a Reduction in Force at the Nixon Project early in the Reagan administration, in 1981-1982, and lost half the staff. Because I had trained them, I really respected some of the archives technicians (unnamed in Kutler v. Wilson but on my list) who continued to work hard on logging the Nixon tapes despite having received pink slips. Some of them manned up and showed a lot of character under truly adverse conditions.

Hastings never was able to bring the staff levels back up very much after that. And there were no opportunities for in-unit promotions.  But he kept us together by providing intangible benefits and being himself. Which meant, not taking himself too seriously. Check out the way he informed us of the Nixon Project’s name change. None of the face saving uptight “I am in control” stuff you get from some executives. Love the dry humor.  The guy who started out as an archives tech hadn’t entirely been smothered in the process of becoming an executive.

Hastings pitched in and helped when needed, which inspired everyone else to do the same.  At the same time that we were packing and moving materials out of the Carter White House, we also had to work on identifying materials related to Alexander M. Haig on the tapes. Both projects are mentioned in the edition of the New York Times in which I’m pictured. My time and production sheet shows the overtime I worked in January 1981; there was a two-week stretch where I had no days off. We were supposed to report 8 hour days so I informally noted the extra hours.  I didn’t mind working that way, as needed; we had such a cohesive cohort and I liked my colleagues.

Metro didn’t open early on Sundays then.  I didn’t have a car.  My boss — that is Jim Hastings — was nice enough to drive from his home to mine and pick me up and drive me to the National Archives when we all worked one day on Sunday that January. Very kind of him, as he lived in Maryland and I in Virginia. He built up a lot of capital with his staff by doing things of that nature. I learned a lot from that although I made some mistakes along the way. (I once argued with Jim about an assignment in a way I totally would not have done later; I was young and just didn’t get the “big picture” view at the time.) As I later rose in rank during my federal career, I really came to appreciate the people who quietly and uncomplainingly added value to their colleagues’ work without going all “me, me, me” and elbowing others’ aside.

So getting the right people in key positions absolutely is important. I’m glad Ferriero sees that. The other point I really like in his list is the last one: change in any organization has “its limits—set by the broader constraints of the context within which it operates.” Hey, I’ve been talking about some of the limitations, constraints, and challenges right here at Nixonara. Seriously, that’s an area where former NARA peeps can help. There are things we can say, bullets we can be willing to take, that current officials can’t handle in exactly the same way we can. So go for it, people.  I did it and I’m still standing. Better than standing, I’m floating on Cloud 9 right now!

No point in expecting miracles, right?  But the photo taken after the Winter Olympics in 1980 reminds me that stranger things have happened than working to transform a troubled agency such as NARA.    (Hey, what was it with that late 1970s, early 1980s fashion of wearing t-shirts over long sleeved shirts, as I did also in 1978-1979, anyway?)  Yeah, I know.  I look like I’m 13 years old and I already was working with the Nixon tapes.  In fact, this is around the time I was working with Hastings on writing the Nixon Project’s Processing Manual.  No wonder Nixon’s lawyers ended up taking potshots at us, hah!

2 responses to “Intangible benefits

  1. John H. Taylor

    Wonderful post; thanks, MK. Hastings’ memo about the name change is a hoot. I always heard great things about him; I wish I’d gotten to know him better.

  2. Yes, isn’t that funny? That’s why I kept a copy of it all these years. (We feds are allowed to take certain convenience copies of materials with which we worked with us. I didn’t keep much given the type of work I did, of course.)

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