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A Lifetime of Service

I didn’t know exactly what to expect when I walked onto the 5th floor of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement building last week. I had an email telling me that the 8th longest serving federal employee, and the longest serving employee at the Department of Homeland Security, was retiring…after 67 years of government service. It’s one of those opportunities no one should pass up, right? Whether you write for a blog, or a newspaper, or just your journal - that kind of insight into the last 70 years of our nation’s inner workings doesn’t come along every day. So, there I was, sitting across the table from Erma Paliani…sorry, “Ms. Erma”, not 5 feet tall, and 92 years old. She’d been working for the federal government for 67 years. I’d been working for the federal government for 6 weeks.

Before we start talking about Ms. Erma’s story, let’s put 67 years into perspective. The U.S. hadn’t entered the Second World War 67 years ago, the minimum wage was 30 cents an hour, you could get a coke for a nickel, and the jitterbug was just getting its legs. Oh, and Federal office buildings weren’t air-conditioned, and as Washington, D.C. was essentially constructed on top of a swamp, I would imagine that would make summers…difficult.

Ms. Erma sat across the table, sunken into her chair after just finishing an interview with the AARP. Now here I was, writing for a “blog,” and the latest in a series of people who wanted to interview her. The attention had been steady in recent weeks and had been kindly - if not eagerly - received. I asked her if she was looking forward to her big retirement party on Friday. She grinned and politely shook her head no.

We began to talk about her life, her roots, her home. She was born in Ambridge, Pa., the second of seven children in an Italian family. Her father passed away when she was young, and it became difficult for her mother and 6 siblings to support themselves. Ms. Erma said she ran errands while her mother took in laundry, and did odd jobs for people to earn money. “My mother was dependent on us to help with the family expenses,” she explained.

Ms. Erma found a job with the Works Progress Administration when she graduated from high school, and her tenure as a federal employee began a few years later when she started working as a stenographer for the Army Signal Corps in 1941—one month before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Her skill earned her a reputation, so when she started looking for work in the private sector after the war, the government asked her to stay; so in 1947 Ms. Erma transferred to the INS, where she remained for 62 years.

Working in the investigations office, Ms. Erma helped dismantle organized crime and racketeers, and over the years handled correspondence in such notable cases as the Tokyo Rose and the Alger Hiss trials and the McCarthy-era HUAC hearings. When she passed her 50th year of service, the then INS granted her with honorary credentials as an agent.

She’s now in the Office of Investigations at ICE and is secretary to the Deputy Assistant Director. A computer has supplanted the Dictaphones and manual typewriters she used at the beginning of her career, though she draws the line at carrying a BlackBerry. Her eyes crinkled into a smile as she explained, “I have enough junk to carry without one of those.” Sing it sister.

Her many friends and colleagues talk about her generous spirit, evident in discussions about how she would stay up all night baking cakes and cookies when an office birthday drew near.

As our meeting wrapped up, a coworker came by to remind Ms. Erma that her Metro Access bus would be coming soon. As we (slowly) walked out with her, it was hard not to notice the fondness with which they treated her. After I said goodbye to Ms. Erma, a coworker turned to me and said, “She’s just got such big heart.”
 

Thanks to Ms. Erma for 67 years of service.
 
Published by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Washington, D.C.
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