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Rita Downs, Hagerstown's listener, steps aside

February 18, 1999

It has all gone so fast, Rita Downs says, "that sometimes I can't believe it." But believe it or not, on Friday March 5, Downs will end her 20-year career as the local representative of Maryland's 6th Congressional District, first working for Rep. Beverly Byron, then for Byron's successor, Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, who proved early on that he was too smart to let such a personable employee get away.

Downs honed her people skills for eight-and-a-half years as a music teacher on the Washington County school system's TV network.

"I worked up until a month before I had Christopher, my oldest son," Downs said, but added that her career as a stay-at-home mom lasted longer than she planned.

"Just when I was talking about finding a good care-giver for him and going back to work, I got pregnant with Bradley," she said.

And so the return to the work force was delayed until her former sister-in-law mentioned that Rep. Byron was looking for some additional office help.


Interviews for the position were held at the YMCA, and once Downs got a look at the competition, some of whom were younger, political-science graduates, she thought she was out of luck.

But as luck would have it, "It turned out she was looking for somebody a little older."

Still, Downs said, she was scared, "like anyone going into a new venture. I had left the work force in 1974 and this was 1979."

The office was located in the Dagmar Hotel, at the corner of Baltimore and Antietam Streets then, and moved to its presentation location at Franklin and Jonathan Streets in 1983.

"Roscoe being just as conscious as he was of saving taxpayers' money, decided to stay here," she said.

But wherever the office has been, there's always been one constant - the telephone, which rings almost continuously with constituents seeking everything from directions to the Washington Monument to help with medical bills related to a life-threatening illness.

As Downs describes it, the case worker's job is a juggling act, working on matters that are months old while taking information for new ones. And in the midst of all this, there are the walk-ins, some of whom are polite and reasonable and some who are unbalanced and downright scary.

Downs doesn't want to talk about these, for fear she would embarrass someone, but she developed a routine for dealing with them that gave them respect and acknowledged their humanity without allowing them to take over or disrupt office business.

The only funny story she'll tell is one that's really on her. She had stepped out of the office to go to the powder room one day, and was gone no longer than a minute. In that short time, someone came into the office, grabbed the radio and answered the ringing office phone. She's never figured out who did it, or why they took the call.

Downs also has a routine for dealing with the myriad of agencies her office must interact with, as well. She doesn't try to intimidate staffers by invoking her boss' congressional position, and not just because she's too polite for that. She asks for help nicely and says she's pleasantly surprised by the number of government workers who are willing to help precisely because she doesn't demand action.

Social Security is an agency she contacts often. This agency has so many problems, she says, because it just has to deal with so many people. And when SS got its new computer system a few years ago, well, Downs just smiles and shakes her head.

Not everybody is nice when they make a request, she reluctantly admits, even though the congressman's office handles calls seeking everything from benefit information to the address of a guest who appeared on a TV talk show that day with a new program to teach children math.

"After 20 years it kind of wears on you, kind of stresses you out," Downs said.

That's as close as she comes to complaining about the job, preferring to remember the good times, when she could help somebody get through a rough time in their life.

"That's the most wonderful thing about this job. I always thought it'd be neat to deliver flowers, because no matter where you go, you get to put a smile on somebody's face. And that's what I get to do here," she said.

There is little time to savor the moment, however, because there's always something new popping up, another boiling-over crisis to work into a plate that's already full. After 20 years, she's opting for something less stressful, a job with Harry Kahn Associates, a firm that publishes and revises technical manuals for a variety of government agencies. Still, her leaving won't be without some sadness.

"I've met so many wonderful people," she says with a sigh.

If you'd like to say good-bye, Downs' co-workers will be hosting an open house/farewell at the 6th District office from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. March 2 to March 5. If you've ever been on the receiving end of her helping hand, you owe it to her to stop by.

Bob Maginnis is editor of The Herald-Mail's Opinion page.

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