Thirty-two years ago, Pat Carson came to work for the city of Menlo Park.
"That makes me feel ancient," she said, laughing. Now the executive secretary to the city manager, she started as a part-time office assistant in the recreation department, called community resources back then, in 198l.
And she fell in love. "I grew up in East Palo Alto. That community, as much as I love it and as much as it's home for me, doesn't have the amenities that are here in Menlo Park. There's no pool. We don't have manicured parks, we don't always feel safe. ... Prior to my being hired here, even though I grew up 10 minutes away, I had never seen the campus (Menlo Park Civic Center) and I fell in love at first sight, with the nature, the trees, the ponds. I had never known this even existed. So it was like the unfolding of a jewel."
She liked the job, liked her office, liked the people she worked with. So when an opening in the city manager's office came up eight years later, well, Ms. Carson didn't exactly leap at it.
"I was referred to the city manager's office by the community resources director," she recalled, who told her it was a temporary three-month assignment to start with.
"I went home and cried because I thought she was trying to get rid of me." Ms. Carson laughed. "I really did."
The new position soon captured her interest. "When I did move (to city hall) it was really different. I met the mayor, learned who the council was. I felt like I worked for city government and I had never felt that for the first seven years."
Ms. Carson filled in as deputy city clerk, swore in police, notarized documents and earned certification as a mediator. She also served as staff liaison to the Housing Commission.
Safe to say no one wants to get rid of her now, either, even after three decades of service under five city managers. The announcement of Ms. Carson's December retirement led to fallen faces at city hall, based on the Almanac's observations, with staff and residents alike sad about losing her trademark warmth and graciousness.
"It's been a pleasure. What I have truly found is a tremendous commitment to work hard and have excellent services for the community," Ms. Carson said. "I like that because that's my work ethic. What's important to me is customer service, and I really enjoy the opportunity to work with so many community members who call in to the city manager's office."
The silly moments stand out, she said. One day a young mother called to ask whether someone could go look for a beloved stuffed toy left behind after her daughter had fed ducks at the Civic Center. "And just as I was thinking, 'Is this in my job description?,"" Ms. Carson said, chuckling,"she says her daughter's just not going to sleep tonight if she doesn't have it."
Sure enough, Ms. Carson found the toy on a bench near the council chambers. "I have never forgotten that; maybe it connected with me being a mother and knowing that children have their favorite toys ... things like that make me feel like I've accomplished something that's real and meaningful."
Frustration, of course, is also part of the job description. "It's been very difficult the last few years to read emails and articles in the paper -- the public changed their opinion of workers when the economy went sour. At one point in time we were loved workers that did our jobs, and suddenly the focus transferred to what kind of retirement income we would receive and what type of salary."
Private sector perks like extended holidays and bonuses didn't come with the city employee package, Ms. Carson said, but her job provided stability when she was a single mother, and she enjoyed the work. "It's good, decent hard work -- that is what we do here. I've always paid into my retirement, I know what comes out of my paycheck and it's not little. It's just sort of very frustrating that the public sees it differently now."
She paused for a moment, thoughtful, when asked how she retains a sense of optimism and pleasure in the face of a cynical public. "I'm happy with my life -- I'm happily married, I have two wonderful adult children. I think a person has to be happy first before they can be happy with anything else that they do. And because I know the truth and I know it's easy sometimes to make comments when you don't know the whole story."
Retirement beckoned with horizons both new and familiar as she wrapped up her last week with the city. "We've definitely got some travel plans. We're going to go to Paris, I think we're going to go to New York, so many places I've never been to. We're just going to keep going. Once I have the chance to get a little of that out of my system ..." -- there's home improvement projects, doing something with family property in East Palo, reading and exercising and perhaps even returning to work, as a mediator.