Historian preserves the stories of Social Security Administration


May 19, 2006|By MELISSA HARRIS

A decade ago, the Social Security Administration lent its sister agency four very valuable items for its 30th anniversary: a pen that President Lyndon B. Johnson used to sign the Medicare Act into law, the gavel used in the House of Representatives to mark the act's passage, and the first two Medicare beneficiary cards - owned and signed by President Harry and first lady Bess Truman.

Officials at the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services wanted to keep them. Larry DeWitt made sure they got only the pen.

A civil servant for 29 years, DeWitt is the Social Security Administration's historian and is quite protective of his agency's collection of memorabilia, kept in a small, first-floor museum just around the corner from the main building's metal detector.

The museum is about the size of a large conference room. As DeWitt, 56, glides among black-and-white photographs, Depression-era advertisements and long ledger sheets, he portrays the agency's work - the world's largest record-keeping operation - as a fine-tuned instrument of policy genius.

Wearing trendy, thick-rimmed glasses and a stylish tie, DeWitt starts his tours by dispelling the myth that the agency's founders anchored the program at Baltimore's Inner Harbor and, later, on Baltimore County farmland because they wanted to insulate it from Washington politics.

It turns out that in 1936 Baltimore's Candler Building on Market Place offered the only available space that could support the weight of all of the agency's records.

Pointing to a black-and-white photograph, DeWitt described an entire floor of the building filled with aisle after aisle of heavy, black metal frames bound together like books and stacked about 7 feet high on top of one another.

Each frame held dozens of thin, pliable bamboo strips imprinted with beneficiaries' names, Social Security numbers and codes that matched corresponding ledger sheets, which tracked the annual earnings of every American.

"There was no building in Washington available that was capable of handling the weight," DeWitt said. "The Candler Building used to be a Coca-Cola bottling factory. It had steel beams to support the bottling equipment. It was the only place that could support 37 million records."

The museum's most valuable item is one of the pens that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt used to sign the Social Security Act of 1935 into law.

DeWitt also has a color photograph of Roosevelt from the cover of The New York Times magazine above an article on the program's genesis. It was one of the first color photographs ever published in a newspaper, and Roosevelt signed it for the paper's photographer.

The most humorous item in the collection is a photograph of Hilda Schrader Whitcher and the story of her Social Security number - 078-05-1120 - the most abused number of all time. In 1938, her boss decided to promote his new product, a wallet, by showing how a Social Security card could comfortably fit into one of its slots.

A sample card with Whitcher's real Social Security number - printed in red ink, with "specimen" clearly stamped on it - was inserted in thousands of wallets and sold across the country by Woolworth's. At the peak of the confusion, according to DeWitt, nearly 6,000 people were using Whitcher's number "issued by Woolworth's."

DeWitt's Web site, which attracts about 100,000 visitors a month, quotes Whitcher as saying, "They started using the number. They thought it was their own. I can't understand how people can be so stupid. I can't understand that."

DeWitt chuckles as he points to a black-and-white photograph of Whitcher holding her real card in one hand and a fake one in the other. She does not appear pleased.

Most visitors, however, don't come to the museum and the archives next door for a laugh. DeWitt says he receives between 200 and 300 inquiries a year. Many of them are fact-based questions from students, agency employees or congressional staff members.

Graduate students working on dissertations also frequently set up shop in the archive's reading room outside his office. He had one graduate student travel from the Netherlands to rifle through the collection for a dissertation on F.D.R.

DeWitt, who grew up in Arizona and began his "formal" history training after taking this job 19 years ago, is working on his Ph.D. in public policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. His specialty is "public history."

"Public history is done outside of a university in museums, at the National Archives in College Park and in the national parks system," DeWitt said. "With UMBC's program, the National Archives, all of the federal agencies and the Maryland State Historical Society all in this area, it really is a hub."

One question, however, still eludes DeWitt and his fellow history buffs. He calls it the mystery of the "Bow Tie Man" - the only person visible in photographs of the signing of the Social Security Act who DeWitt does not know. And he is hoping it is only a matter of time.

In the signing photo, the "Bow Tie Man" is standing behind FDR and next to Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, the first woman Cabinet secretary and key SSA architect.

If you know the identity of "Bow Tie Man," please e-mail melissa.harris@baltsun.com. We will forward your theory to DeWitt.

Recent columns can be read at baltimoresun.com/federal.

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