Sunday, May 2, 2010

Ode to Office Heroes, or, Hey!, Who Copied Off My (Carbon) Paper!?

The American working world recently honored its Administrative Professionals with an official Week and an Official Day. If there is a special week or day during which secretaries are rewarded, you can bet your hat they won’t let the bosses forget. It’s the secretaries’ job to remind them of things like that.

What a secretarial break!

“Boss, just reminding you of your meeting with Closter at 10, a luncheon at the bank on Pine and 1st Pine at noon, soccer practice for Julie at 3:30, and Administrative Professionals Day is just 11 short months and two weeks away.”
It’s a case of entirely legitimate pump priming.

I seldom think of a secretary that I don’t think of Mrs. Cynthia, who was my dad’s secretary back in the day and one of the kindest and most humble women I have ever known; she had to have been to have not killed my father.

Daddy was a preacher. For the Sunday service Mrs. Cynthia typed the bulletin, run off on mimeograph paper and distributed dutifully to the saints as they walked, shuffled or stumbled in. On this particular Sunday, the bulletin told us that we were beginning an outreach program for the “sick and shut-in.” Sadly, “shut” was mistyped. Just one letter was wrong. The vowel “u.” Another vowel had been typo-ed in there, and if you don’t think one letter can make a difference, then you are, most unfortunately, wrong.

The “u” and the “i” are side-by-side on the keyboard.


My dad couldn’t let this go by without a comment. He announced that if “everyone would please turn to the back of your bulletin…” He gave people time to find the error before he said we were going to cancel that ministry before it even got started. I think that’s what he said. It was hard to hear with everyone laughing.

(My Aunt Opal, shut-in at the time, got the bulletin in the mail later that week. She called my mother and said to get her “off that list!”)

Anyway, I can see Mrs. Cynthia now, he face turning the color of our crimson choir robes. She remains the greatest secretary I have ever known, if for no other reason than she did not poison my dad’s coffee. No jury would have convicted her.

Since I’ve been a grownup, people have said to me now and then that they would “contact my secretary,” I guess because they thought I actually had one. I am lucky to have a desk and a key to get in the building. But I have had the pleasure of being cared for by shared office-wide administrative pros who should have bodyguards on them at all times. If they go, we all go.

Vanessa. Mrs. Elaine. Althea. Louise. Deb. Helen. Common names, but when I hear them, they remind me of impossible road trips that were worked out, receipts that were recalculated, birthdays that were remembered. I hear their names and I hear inspiration and encouragement. To me they're music.

The best office pros are a cross between mental masseuse, mom, teacher, coach and cheerleader. They are walking Post-It Notes and Palm Pilots.

Human Valium.

Carbon paper comes and goes. Egos wear out their welcome. Ways of working evolve.

But it’s always people who make the Project of the Day pass or fail. Often, they are stealthy, the rebar in the concrete. Call them office managers or administrative professionals or secretaries, but the best ones are worth their weight in toner. Gold toner.

More often than not, we’re the typographical errors. They’re the Liquid Paper.


(Reprinted from The Times and The News-Star, 05/02/10)