A Call Answered

In 1961, when incoming President John F. Kennedy urged Americans to think about what they could do for their country instead of vice versa, a federal worker named Nancy Potter had already devoted 12 years to public service. She would spend another 51 years on the job before retiring recently from the U.S. General Services Administration.

Common Cents by Lurita Doan

GSA is an agency few have heard of, and the GSA Office of the Financial Officer is probably as remote as a lunar crater to most Americans. For the record, GSA is the government’s procurement arm, providing billions in goods and services to other agencies so they can concentrate on their own core missions. The in-house financial office handles strategic planning, budgeting and financial management.

That is where Ms. Potter labored, in relative obscurity, for more than six decades. The word “obscurity” may conjure negative stereotypes of government workers, who too often are lampooned by those who would rather find fault than solutions. By contrast, Ms. Potter made significant contributions in many areas, including the creation more than 30 years ago of a special fund used to finance the cost of acquiring, repairing, altering, and operating federal buildings. Not very sexy but a much smarter way to handle Uncle Sam’s real estate holdings. The Federal Buildings Fund is recognized today as a truly innovative model in how to wisely manage taxpayer dollars.

And so it was no surprise that on a recent day in mid-December, well-wishers filled the GSA auditorium to capacity and special friends told stories that shed light not only on the guest of honor, but also on the concept of public service. Our modest auditorium is 94 years old, same as the historic building itself, which was once home to the U.S. Interior Department. Ms. Potter was there the day the building re-opened in 1949 as the General Services Administration. It was exciting, she told us. And different from today. Stamps cost three cents and you could buy a new car for $1,650.

The room got quiet when she spoke next. “Why did I stay so long?” she said. “The answer is simple: I valued the work. I’m passionate about the programs. I believe in what we do. I believe in our team.”

As a government official, my only disappointment is that average Americans did not get to see Ms. Potter make her gracious exit. We live in a time when “good” news rarely reaches the front page, which makes it seem at times like the only news out there is bad news. Not true. Good news is everywhere and good people abound in our government.

Sometimes they show up after 63 years of dedicated public service in a gray suit in a government auditorium.

“When I walked in here as a 16-year-old federal employee,” Ms. Potter recalled, “I felt important and excited to be working so close to Capital Hill and the White House. As I prepare to leave GSA, I may not be 16, but I am no less excited by the important work this agency does for our customer agencies and the American people.”

Nancy Potter’s parting gifts this holiday season were a good-news story that should be blared throughout the nation, a legacy that President Bush correctly said “reflects the spirit of America,” and a dramatic call to public service made the most effective way possible: by example.

Lurita Doan is Administrator of the U.S. General Services Administration.

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