Thursday, December 23, 2004

Miss Dorothy

One assistant city attorney has been on the job for 60 years.

Posted By on Thu, Dec 23, 2004 at 4:00 AM

D orothy Osradker went to work for the city of Memphis in 1945, as World War II was winding down. She was in her early 20s, had a law degree and four years of work experience, and no plans to make a career of public service.

But in 2005, Osradker, an assistant city attorney, will celebrate a milestone reached by few public employees anywhere: 60 years with city government.

In addition to being a capable attorney, the woman known to her colleagues as "Miss Dorothy" is a good storyteller with sharp opinions, a fine sense of humor, and an amazing work ethic. Her boss, city attorney Sara Hall, says Osradker had taken exactly one sick day in 59 years before suffering a serious illness this year.

"I calculated once that she has accumulated seven years of sick days," says Hall.

Osradker, who grew up an only child in Missouri during the Depression, completed her education and went to work at a time when women were second-class citizens in the workforce. She earned a law degree from Southern College of Law in Memphis in 1941 -- one of four women in the class of 39 students -- and hoped to be a legal secretary because women were simply not accepted as attorneys.

Her career was interrupted by the war. She worked for four years as secretary and office manager at the Memphis airport for a company that trained pilots for the Air Force, sometimes accompanying the pilots on their flights. As the war wound down and veterans started coming home, her boss told her, "The first one that comes by and wants your job, I'm going to give it to him."

So Osradker answered a two-line newspaper ad for a job keeping the minutes of the City Commission, the forerunner of the Memphis City Council. "They offered me a job," she said. "I thought it would just be a place I would pass through."

She saw Memphis fall behind Atlanta in the 1950s and 1960s and lose its Ford Motor Company plant, partly due to a disagreement with local environmentalists over cutting down some trees in a park. Then she watched a similar scenario play out a few years later when environmentalists blocked the federal government from running Interstate 40 through Overton Park. This gave her a somewhat dim view of "tree lovers," although she lives only a couple of blocks from the abandoned Midtown interstate corridor.

She was on the job on the April afternoon in 1968 when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated but, ironically, was unaware of it for several hours because she was in her office typing up the minutes of a City Council meeting that lasted until 6 o'clock.

After 25 years, she changed jobs and moved over to the city attorney's office, drafting or researching countless ordinances and becoming the resident expert on everything from consolidation to the legality of killing pigeons in a park. "She is just an incredible source of knowledge," says Hall. Osradker can keep working as long as she is able. In 1986, Congress and President Ronald Reagan did away with the mandatory retirement age.

"Now I'm too stubborn to retire," she says. "Retire is not a word I like to hear."

A single woman, Osradker has travelled to nearly every continent, learned to fix her vintage 1950s car with the aid of a subscription to Popular Mechanics, and once wrote a sitcom about office life that almost became a network pilot. Hall says she is usually one of the first people to arrive at work at 7:15 a.m. with a copy of the newspaper and a boiled egg. On her work desk is a thick stack of files ("That's to impress you," she tells a visitor) and a big-screen computer. She has little use for the Internet or modern jargon.

"Use plain one-syllable words with me," she insists. "Do not use initials. You have to have it in simple form for someone to understand how something works." Or as she says by way of summarizing her job, "I like my ordinances to be legal." •

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