MY LIFE WORKING IN THE 1960s

When I turned 21 years old in 1962, I moved to the DC area. I was fortunate, or so I thought at the time to transfer from a major insurance company office in Charlottesville to a much smaller claims office that was within a block of the DC/Maryland line. Because my transportation was by city bus, I walked about a mile to and from work every day to catch a bus from Maryland to DC. I loved the idea I was walking between two different cities every day.

I was used to the firm’s policies in the larger office, where there were always training classes to take so I could advance up the ladder of the different clerical slots. I had started as a clerk-typist pounding out checks to clients and businesses all day. Someone proofed these checks and any mistakes were returned to me to retype. I quickly became familiar with the Maryland/DC area via these checks since these companies were repairing the cars damaged in accidents. The people who drove these cars reported to the small claims office where I was being transferred.

If you had a bodily injury, more paper work was filled out over the phone. Property damage claims were called in and a representative of the company would pay you a visit to photograph your vehicle.

When I started this job, I was given some title with a small raise and was told I was now a Level 3 at the firm. There were probably 30 people at the firm. Some were older lawyers that never rose too far in firms or government. Others were attorneys-in-training; this group were the most interesting to me because they were going to law school and working. There were secretaries assigned to the older attorneys (all men); unassigned people like me that had no official position; several people covering the receptionist area and one man that covered all personnel issues. I was told the opportunities here were endless.

My first week was spent learning how to use the switchboard while I figured who was who and who handled what. This was the limit to my introduction. After that, I was told to check on all supplies needed by anyone. I typed whatever the young attorneys-in-training needed, plus was a backup to secretaries that might be absent or a secretary that wanted someone to run and fetch since she couldn’t leave her desk.

We had a once a week secretarial meeting which even then I understood was handled strangely. We met in a freezing room with blinds tightly drawn. We were told all the mishaps from the week before. Too much time spent using the ladies room; lunch hours needed to be exactly one hour. He kept a record of the people violating this rule. Their names were read and the women’s anger showed in flushed faces. Women newly married were asked when they planned to have children and were asked to wait at least a year to start families before they were hired.

I noticed there was an older attorney listed as head of the entire office, and his secretary Juanita, who sat in his office laughing most of the time. The other three of these older attorneys had secretaries sitting in front of their offices. I assumed this was one of my future opportunities. None of these secretaries seemed to have much work to do other than being there if needed.

As time went on, I realized the most interesting job in the office was handling the bodily injury claims called in every day. The calls were fielded by only one person, who was overwhelmed with the work involved. I volunteered to be a backup here. The rest of the work I did seemed like made up work. These calls were people involved in an accident usually within a few minutes prior to the call. Others were those caretakers to people who were still waiting to be paid. The more serious cases were those who never were going to be more than a vegetable after some horrendous wreck. If we didn’t know how to answer the questions, these were fielded to the older attorneys. These attorneys preferred us to figure out the answers. They were killing time to retirement. We usually had bodily injury files we could refer to if it were an older case. Remember only manual typewriters, no computers. We asked a series of standard questions from whomever called and hoped it was a first time call only.

Some evenings the young attorneys-in-training went out and I hung out with them. It expanded my universe beyond books with stimulating conversations. I learned about Berkeley and Students for a Democratic Society. They discussed religion, politics, ideas. All I did was sit quietly feeling overwhelmed by what I didn’t know. These people had lives ahead of them after law school. They had plans to move across the country. The best I had done was move near DC and the only reason for that was I had visited DC one day with my senior class and I loved it then. I wanted a change and to change.

A year later when I had befriended Juanita, I was given another increase in salary to bring my salary up to the Washington area standards. It didn’t touch what I should have made, but I was all about improving myself, learning by listening, watching, and volunteering to take on more duties. The Charlottesville office decided our branch office of this insurance company should be featured once a month in their weekly newsletters. I volunteered to write this page by interviewing the featured person. The older attorneys liked it because they were not well known outside of this small office. The attorneys-in-training thought it was amusing since they were just passing through until graduation. It got my name printed on newsletter letterhead so I was happy.

One March day during an intensive wind storm, the roof fell in while we were on the phone with clients. After the initial crash where the air was full of dust and plaster and the wires were hanging down over me, I wondered if we going to be able to leave early. It was about 2 pm and I wondered if the whole building were coming down while I took this call. Finally, the call ended, I picked up my purse and was told to not take the elevator but leave quickly and be sure to come in the next day.

Somehow my Mother who lived in Charlottesville heard on the news about our firm’s ceiling collapsing. The minute I entered my small apartment, she called me to find out if I were alright. I said yes, but I was shaken up by what could have been. It didn’t hit me until I was on the bus riding home that we could have all been killed.

The next day I was back on the job as usual. There were any number of people around investigating, measuring, looking and taking notes. As the morning moved on and I was busy typing up all the interviews from clients I had taken, the air seemed heavy and cloudy. I realized we were having something else happening here. The smell was awful. People were coughing and hacking throughout the office. My eyes were watering nonstop. The top investigative person told us an electrical fire had started. Once again, the personnel guy was forced to allow us to leave early. We were told to be in on time tomorrow and don’t use the elevators on the way out. Not a problem for me. I wouldn’t have gone in an elevator there if my life depended on it and it might.

During the summer months, I woke up with a terrible pain in my mouth. My tooth was infected and I had to go to the dentist. I was told I needed to have this back tooth removed if I didn’t have dental insurance or money to pay. I had to have my wisdom tooth extracted because it was impacted, but that would have to be done another day. I didn’t show up for work until 10 am (two hours late) and I was promptly called into personnel. This man told me despite my infection in the one tooth causing its removal, and the impacted wisdom tooth, I was expected to be in the office on time and there all day. I called the dentist’s office and arranged (paying more money) to have my wisdom tooth removed on a Saturday. For the next 10 days or so, with my mouth in a certain type of agony, I went to work and dealt with it. This rule applied to snow storms as well. You were expected to be there. If you weren’t, you had a visit to personnel and were told this would be factored into your review for the entire year. I dragged in because bus drivers must have heard the same message. They drove me to their last stop and I walked the mile in deep snow at times back and forth to work. I was determined not to miss or have to face that situation. During this time, most people didn’t come in. I was told to work the switchboard which was buzzing and lines were crossed. I hung people up; at times I gave them the wrong person. I had forgotten my first week’s training on this and did the best I could. I wanted to say this office is closed, but I knew that was not the case.

After about three years there, I came in one day and was called into Juanita’s boss’ office and told a secretary had been let go. She had worked for one of the other top partners and I would be replacing her. My new title was something like Claims Department Secretary, Level 4. A raise would be forthcoming. I felt dread and knew this wasn’t going to work. I was then walked over to the attorney’s office. He said he had been quite fond of her and knew the transition would be tough. No one knew why she was let go, but in that office the tiniest infraction might cost you your job. During a major snow storm, an excellent secretary was let go for not being able to get through the drifts in her neighborhood.

I sat for almost six months doing little. I wasn’t allowed to take any more claim calls as I had to be available to him always. His lunch was to be picked up every day and other than a letter or two, I had nothing to do.

Juanita called me in to tell me the entire company office was being moved to the Frederick, Maryland area and our branch office would be closed within two months. I felt fearful as I had worked for the company six years including the main office in Charlottesville. It was bad in so many ways, yet I had enjoyed myself and learned a great deal. I had no plans to go to the new office. I put in my resignation immediately. Juanita tried to talk me into delaying until the last couple of weeks but I said no. I didn’t have a new job, but I knew it shouldn’t take too long. In those days, jobs were plentiful for people like me.

From this experience, I learned what I didn’t want and I learned all the things I had to get beyond to continue my pursuit to have more than the life I had.

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