That’s dedication!

The secret to a long and healthy life, says Helen Jagodzinske, is that there are no secrets. But there are some guidelines. Good genes help tremendously, of course, she says, and “personally, I like to be physically active—just coming into work is good.” At 93—the oldest employee at the Smithsonian Institution—it seems she would know.

Employed as a retail associate by Smithsonian Enterprises, Helen started her second career working in the Institution’s museum stores as a way to keep busy and in command of her financial future following her retirement from the Department of the Army—in 1973. Marveling at her dedication to work, SE’s chief operating officer of the retail division, Paul Flickinger, noted that “She’s spent nearly as long in her second career” —38 years!—“as most people do in their first.”

Helen Jagodzinske (Photo by Myra Cones)

That first career came after Helen had served in both the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps and later the Women’s Army Corps during World War II. Among other assignments, she worked as a teletype operator. “I had done teletype before the war, so when they needed someone for the [signal corps] school, I was selected,” she said, which led to her being stationed with the Signal Corps in New Guinea and the Philippines. Weighing her options after three years in the Army, she decided against going back to her secretarial job in Chicago, electing instead to try to land a government job by taking the civil service exams for both federal service and for her home state of Minnesota.

“Federal responded first,” she said, leading her to the Pentagon where she began working as a clerk-typist in a machine records unit. Recalling the story while sitting for an interview in the Reynolds Center where she currently works was fitting, she said, as it’s the same place where her post-war career in Washington began: Long before the Old Patent Office Building became home to the two Smithsonian art museums it now houses, it was a federal building that saw many different roles. “When I came to Washington, [the Civil Service Commission] was located where the Portrait Gallery is now,” she said. “I reported to Civil Service in this very building.”

Times may have changed since Helen began her career, but her work ethic is a constant. (Photo courtesy Underwood & Underwood/Corbis)

In a sign of just how much has changed since that time, she noted that when she started working at the Pentagon, “the records were stored on mechanical punch cards.”

While times have certainly changed, time has done little to slow Helen down. At 93, she is lively and active, still living on her own and commuting to the Reynolds Center by a combination of bus and Metrorail. Longevity and good health run in her family, she said, with a mother who lived to be 85 and a grandmother who lived to be 83.

Reminiscing about her decades spent in retail, Helen said that one of the most enjoyable aspects of her job is meeting the visitors that the Smithsonian draws from all over the world. “There are so many foreign visitors,” she said. “Even from North Korea,” one of the most famously isolated nations on earth. She still recalls the day that actress Katharine Hepburn and her entourage visited the American Art Museum shop she was working at.

An avid traveler and past participant on Smithsonian Journeys trips, Helen has visited “Asia Minor, Europe, Scandinavia—there were so many places. I’ve been fortunate to do a lot of traveling.” And that’s not even counting the time she spent with the Army stationed overseas. “If I had my druthers, I’d like to be traveling,” she said, and hopes to do a little more after she retires. Again. While she very much enjoys working, she said, she knows that day is approaching. “I’ve worked with wonderful people. I’ve seen so many come and go—I remember when one of our managers was a sales girl.”

“It will be hard, but I’ll eventually have to leave,” said Helen. “I haven’t set a date yet.” After so many years spent with the Smithsonian, “being with the shops—it’s like family.”

Editor’s note: Helen has announced that she will retire from the Smithsonian Institution May 7, 2011.

Posted: 29 April 2011
About the Author:

Scott Stark serves as the communications manager for Smithsonian Enterprises, where he’s worked since 2005. An avid photographer, he took the first “Somewhere in the Smithsonian” photo without realizing it, simply capturing a close-up of the swirls of a Smithsonian sculpture solely for its abstract aesthetic value. Upon realizing that it might be fun for coworkers to identify the object, the mystery photo game was born.

One Response to That’s dedication!
    • Lee Hanley
    • What a great article! I am one of the many,many people who have known Helen from her second job. I worked for Smithsonian Enterprises for many years, every once in awhile I see her in the shop.