Municipal employee's enduring labor of love Payroll supervisor retires after 59 years

July 31, 1996|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,SUN STAFF

Municipal government's endurance champ ended a career that began during the Great Depression when 78-year-old Rita Howell left her desk yesterday in Baltimore City's payroll department after nearly six decades of service.

"I've had good health," explained Howell, a shy woman who started at City Hall in 1937 for a salary of $900 a year. "I needed to work and I liked to work."

Today, Howell's need for work is as much to fill the hours as pay the bills. Her salary as a supervisor is a little more than 30 times what it was in 1937. With her pension, Social Security and the recent buyout offered longtime city employees, she'll be just as well off staying home as going to work every day.

"Everybody was retiring and I went to find out what I would really get, and it was such a good offer I couldn't refuse it," said Howell, her desk crowded with timecards and payroll lists of thousands of city workers.

With "Miss Howell" gone from the eighth floor of the Municipal Employees Credit Union on Fayette Street, her co-workers may be more tempted to stay home when they aren't exactly sick but don't feel like working.

They were born, after all, in eras with a somewhat diminished sense of civic duty. Indeed, most of them were born years after Rita Howell took her civil service test after graduating from Western High School in 1935.

Said Ron Chopper, a former boss: "Miss Howell was one of those amazing people, and we need people like this, who concentrate on what they're supposed to do and that's all they concentrate on. She came to work, did her job and went home. That's the way payroll is done. There's no big deal about it, but there's stress. Her entry date for service is 15 days before the day I was born."

Remembered Kweisi Gray, a 25-year veteran who sits at the next desk: "When I first came here straight out of high school, I was a cute little kid having fun. But I learned that work was serious from Miss Howell. It was real and to be respected."

Colleagues like to tell the story about the day not long ago when Howell shocked the office by taking an hour off.

"I had to get a new air conditioner," she said. "The one I had was 40 years old and they didn't make parts for it anymore."

Born on a tobacco farm in Charles County, Howell arrived in Baltimore at age 10 when her father took a job as a train inspector with Baltimore and Ohio railroad. The family lived on Winchester Street on the west side.

The payroll department was still inside City Hall, and on her first day of work "they just sat me down and started giving me instructions." Asked if she had a favorite mayor among the 10 she's served since Howard Jackson, Howell said: "None of them made any difference to me."

After being on the job for a while, she married Charles E. Howell Jr., a World War II pilot killed on a bombing mission over Germany. She never remarried and for the past 40 years has lived in Baltimore County on Sussex Road in Woodmoor.

In her private life, she goes out to lunch with a niece, takes bus trips and since the 1950s has attended Mass at Holy Family Catholic Church on Liberty Road. She is thinking of joining a club for seniors, but it's simply an alternative to lying around the house, not what she'd really like to do.

What she'd really like to do is keep going the way she has for so long -- walking three blocks to the subway stop near her house, getting in about 45 minutes before her shift starts, reading for a while and then buckling down to an honest day's work of processing employee attendance sheets.

In fact, she brokered a deal with city government before agreeing to take the buyout. Three days a week, she'll be showing up on the eighth floor of the Municipal Employees Credit Union building to do for free what she's been paid to do for the past 59 years, reinventing herself from municipal employee to municipal volunteer.

"I won't miss anybody too much," she said. "I'll see them next Tuesday."

Pub Date: 7/31/96

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