My first day of work for the Mitchell School District was July 3, 2000, a Monday. I remember it because the first day of work in a new district as a superintendent is always fraught with lots of decisions, meeting new people and figuring out how things work.
Except that’s not how it transpired in Mitchell. The entire Central Office took that day off, understandable since the next day was a holiday and by taking Monday off, it allowed for a 4-day weekend. Well, actually not the entire staff. The secretary to the office of the superintendent had contacted me the week before and, once she realized I would be working on the third (who takes vacation on their first day of work?), she volunteered to come in that day. Well, not volunteered, really. She insisted.
I got in early that morning so that I could knock out some of the trivial tasks that might be waiting for me. That done, I got to work in earnest on several longer-term projects I knew had been identified by community members, the school board and me. By the time I took a breath — no I’m not complaining; the truth is I love my work — it was mid-morning and I was surprised my assistant hadn’t poked her head in to say good morning.
So, I poked my head out to find a still unlit office and nothing stirring. By the time lunch break rolled around, I decided to give her a call to see what was up. Three calls later, I discovered she had an excellent reason for her absence. She was in the ICU at Avera Queen of Peace with congestive heart failure. I stopped at her ‘office,’ to find a diminutive pixie with tubes running here and there and an EKG machine providing background music with its steady bleeps. As I stepped into the room, she blinked an apology for her absence. Surrounded by a din and an ado, she simply smiled and welcomed me to Mitchell.
She recovered of course and spent more than a decade in my outer office, welcoming visitors, assisting employees with their concerns and assuaging the fears and anger of all who arrived. She was unflappable, calm, patient with all of my questions about “how things are done in Mitchell,” and — this is the single word I would use if I had only a single word to do so — sweet.
She radiated a kindness and a pleasant demeanor that was infectious even for those not typically inclined toward that personality trait. One day, early in my career here, a difficult fellow came to the office and instantly began screaming at her. Literally screaming. He was upset of course, at me but was more than happy to spend scads of his ire on this sprite that blocked his way to my door. He was so loud and so deliberate in his anger that I instantly rounded by desk and bounded to hers. He instantly quieted. One of the signs of a truly repugnant person is the tendency to chew out the secretary, then act respectfully towards the “boss.” As I interned and helped him find a way into my office, I glanced back to offer my regrets for the offender’s behavior, but she looked quizzically at me, as if to say no apologies were necessary. Her cherubic smile said it all.
She was cut from a different cloth and of a different generation, a kinder, more professional, more congenial bunch. Soon after her return from the ICU, she stopped in and noted a bit of correspondence that needed drafting. Pulling out a small pad and pen, she asked me to dictate a response. She took shorthand. She loved taking shorthand. Nobody takes shorthand anymore.
It is simply easier to type my own letter and print them out. One step. Shorthand takes multiple steps. It is inefficient, silly, obsolete. How I miss it.
Almost as much as I miss her. After too short a retirement, Gerry Tatina, left this world a week ago. And left it a place increasingly devoid of the sweetness that she brought to her work and to our lives.