Top secretary calls it a career

School chief's assistant retires after 47 years

July 03, 2000|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

The ones who think they're smart call after 5 p.m.

But to the frustration of parents eager to vent, bellow or whine at Baltimore County's schools chief, they don't get the man, they get his secretary.

"Superintendent's office, Elaine Isennock."

Even at 5:45, Isennock picks up.

"I guess they think that if they call late they might just get him on the line," said Isennock, 66, who has been the soft-spoken gatekeeper for six superintendents during her 47-year career with the school system.

Isennock decided to call it quits when the last of her six bosses, Anthony G. Marchione, announced in August that he would retire, effective at the end of last week. Although she officially retired Friday, Isennock has agreed to work another month or so to help train her successor.

"Oh, I'm sure they'll be able to replace me," said Isennock, sorting through a thick stack of mail for the superintendent. "It's not like I'm something special."

But she is.

Trained in the late 1940s on a manual typewriter at Towson High School, Isennock remembers a time when secretaries had to type out copies because copy machines didn't exist. She wrote out, on little pink slips, every caller's name, phone number and message until recently. She uses e-mail now.

She talks about voice mail the way teen-agers talk about their parents.

"Beloved voice mail!" she said, rolling her eyes.

"Voice mail has its advantages, but then there are so many times that people just let a call go to voice mail, which I don't think is right," said Isennock. "Those of us who have to answer end up answering for those who won't."

Isennock interned with the school system her senior year at Towson, when administrators were still based at the Aigburth Mansion off York Road. She did a good job and was offered full-time work upon graduation. She was 17.

Isennock hasn't always had the school system's top secretarial job - she took a few years off when her two daughters were born - but then no one remembers when she didn't.

Isennock ticks off the names of the superintendents she has worked for like items on a grocery list.

"Edward G. Stapleton, William J. Sartorius, Joshua R. Wheeler, Robert Y. Dubel, Stuart Berger, Anthony G. Marchione."

She memorized their names by typing them out over and over again. By this time they are "engraved" in her memory, she said.

"You get to know a lot about them personally," she said of the superintendents, men whose curriculum decisions span a third of the school system's history. "Their families call and their doctors and dentists. But then that's standard procedure for secretaries."

Isennock doesn't mind the secretary title, even though she makes more "judgment calls" than she did when she started the job so long ago. "They call us administrative assistants, but we're secretaries," she said.

Marchione, Isennock's last boss, said his secretary went beyond the call of duty - even volunteering to drive his elderly mother to doctors' appointments when he couldn't. Her work ethic could not be diluted, he said.

"She got tired of me telling her it was time to go home," Marchione said of his colleague, who averaged nine-hour days and was known to lunch on sodas and crackers.

"I have nothing but wonderful things to say about her," said Berger, who worked with Isennock for three years and tried to hire her away from the school system to work for his consulting firm when he left in 1995. "She was one of the few highlights during my time with Baltimore County schools."

Accolades aside, Isennock, who has lived in Madonna, Harford County, for about 35 years, said she is eager for free days she can spend gardening with her husband, Pete, who is 69 and semi-retired.

The couple plans to take trips to Nova Scotia and Hawaii, too.

Then there's Isennock's little angel, grandson Kurt, who is 2.

"It will be very difficult for me to learn not to have a set schedule," she said on one of her last days at her office on the second floor of Greenwood, the hilltop mansion where the school system is based today.

"I'll have to learn to play it by ear."

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