University Honors Long-Serving Employees

Career Milestones event honors staff members’ continuous service to the George Washington University.

2015 Career Milestones
Della Rafuson, forty years of service, embraces Nia Phillips, twenty years of service, during the Career Milestones Ceremony held Friday at the Marvin Center Ballroom. (Photo: Rob Stewart for GW Today)
May 11, 2015

By Ruth Steinhardt

When Helen Spencer began working at the George Washington University as a senior secretary in the Office of Research Oversight in the mid-1970s, her workplace looked very different than it does now.

Electric and even manual typewriters were prized commodities. Every woman in Ms. Spencer’s office was expected to wear pantyhose, even in the sweltering summer heat of Washington, D.C. And every research sponsorship that a GW professor received was catalogued alphabetically by donor on a 5-by-7 inch card in an enormously heavy box.

Now, Ms. Spencer is director of compliance and ethics in GW’s Office of Compliance and Privacy, where she helps faculty, staff and students behave ethically and in accordance with regulations. The days when even electronic calculators were a rarity are long gone, and her office is equipped with laptops and smartphones.

 “But I still have that filing box at home,” she said.

Ms. Spencer, also a GW alumna, was one of many long-time university employees to be honored for reaching significant milestone anniversaries—in her case, her 40th year at GW. The recognition came at a lunch and ceremony Friday afternoon, where employees who have worked at GW for 20, 25, 30, 35 and 40 years were honored.  

Employees who have worked at GW five, 10 or 15 years were honored at a ceremony in March.

At the ceremony Friday, celebrants ate lunch with their colleagues, friends and family as a string quartet played. George Washington President Steven Knapp took commemorative photos with individuals and later gave remarks.

“None of what we’ve accomplished at this institution would have been possible without the service that you all exemplify,” Dr. Knapp said. “You are the ones that bring distinction and honor and a great deal of power to this institution, and your contributions are visible all around us.”

The names of every individual in the audience who had reached a milestone were read, and honorees stood as their names were called. The five longest-serving employees present at the event, including Ms. Spencer, were called onstage to receive commemorative certificates for their 40 years of service.

From left: GW Executive Vice President and Treasurer Lou Katz presents a milestone certificate to Helen Spencer as GW President Steven Knapp stands by. (Photo: Rob Stewart for GW Today)

“We are so very appreciative and thankful for your service to this university,” said Sabrina Ellis, vice president for university human resources. “This is a special moment for all of us, recognizing the amazing contributions that you’ve made to GW and the amazing things that have happened [to the university] during your time here.”

Ms. Spencer was not the only long-term employee to recognize great changes in her workplace over time. Joann Hodge, now a crew leader in the Division of Operations, also began work 40 years ago. In her case, the job was as a housekeeper in Ross Hall. She remembers that the entire neighborhood was different: “There’s been a lot of improvement,” she said. “Half the buildings weren’t even built. Even the Foggy Bottom Metro Station wasn’t here.”

Ms. Hodge witnessed some big moments in history, too. Working across from the back entrance to George Washington University Hospital, she saw the crowds of Secret Service, police and cars flooding in after the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan in 1981.

Ms. Hodge said that she felt close to many of the students in the residential buildings where she worked, particularly the basketball players. “I was like a mother figure for them. They’d come up to me and give me hugs,” she remembered. “I’ve seen so many of them come and go.”

Long tenures at the university also have led to the formation of other, even closer relationships. In 1983, Ms. Spencer was approached by a clinical professor from the small business clinic at the GW Law School who needed help with some paperwork. The professor, Peter Aron, was awed by Ms. Spencer’s competence and fluency with work he’d found almost incomprehensible. “I’d never seen anyone’s fingers move so fast across a calculator,” he remembered.

More than 30 years later, Mr. Aron and Ms. Spencer are married with two daughters. Both of them remember GW as a kind of second home from their early childhood, and both were eyewitnesses to the changes in the school and neighborhood. For instance, the drugstore where Ms. Spencer went as a student to buy blue books for her final exams is now a bar and restaurant, Tonic, where her daughters sometimes go to Trivia night.

“The area is so much more vibrant, I think, for everyone who lives and works here,” Ms. Spencer says. “It’s been a real transformation.”