Telephone messages this time of year abound with countdowns to Christmas, but should you reach Judy Howell's voicemail at work, you'll get the countdown to her retirement day, Dec. 23.
Each day, she changes the message, adding a touch of the holiday season to her countdown.
Retirement signs hang from her cubicle as the big days gets closer, along with photos of the "three favorite men in her life — E.T., Ronald Reagan and her husband, Joe — not in that order," she said.
Howell, 55, has worked for the Internal Revenue Service for 35 years. She has worked all of those years in Hagerstown, except for a three-year stint in the Frederick, Md. office.
Howell, whose maiden name is Karn, is a Hagerstown native. Her first name is spelled Judithe, the result of an error on her birth certificate. It was her middle name, Ann, that was supposed to have the "e."
She graduated from South Hagerstown High School in 1973, where she was a cheerleader, an opportunity that changed her life for the better, she said.
Howell got an associate's degree in data processing from what was then Hagerstown Junior College. Her coursework included six hours of accounting, which helped her land her first job in taxpayer services at the IRS.
"To live and work in the town you grew up in, it's amazing. It's a great job," Howell said.
Howell still has her first paycheck stub from 1975, when she earned $7,900 a year.
"I thought I was rich. In 1975, then single, that was big bucks," Howell said.
At that time, she was one of 18 employees in the Hagerstown office. Now there are six.
After two years, Howell switched to auditing, a position she held for 25 years. That position allowed her to travel all over the country training other IRS employees.
"I had a lot of very good opportunities because I was willing to travel," Howell said.
Eight years ago, Howell returned to customer service because she said she was "burned out" after a quarter century in auditing.
"I went full circle," said Howell, who is one of two tax advisory specialists in the Hagerstown office.
They deal with any tax questions or mailed notices taxpayers receive, often after they have become frustrated trying to navigate the toll-free phone number first.
Howell's replacement is from a call center in Baltimore, one of four employees who applied for the position.
During the non-filing season, Howell said they help about 150 customers a week. Peak season means about 150 customers per day.
"We're mountain people. I'm a mountain mama," Howell said with a laugh.
As much as Howell enjoys working with the public, and especially the rapport she has with her coworkers, she said she's been planning to retire at the earliest age possible for many years. Her husband retired as a plumber in June, and she was looking forward to joining him.
She and her husband of 28 years, Joe, live on 10 acres in Pleasant Valley. They depend on their two to three goats to keep the weeds down.
Howell's coworkers will salute her service with a retirement party at the Boonsboro American Legion in early January dubbed "Let's Cheer Her On!"
"I know I'll cry," Howell said of her party.
Retirement will be celebrated in style as the Howells take to the road in their vintage Porsche, a retirement gift to each other.
Besides becoming a home body and doing some volunteer work, Howell said she and Joe like to travel, and there are many places in the United States they'd like to see.
She said Joe likes to drive, and she likes to navigate, so it's a perfect match, especially since she doesn't like flying anymore.
"I can't believe it's coming to an end. Thursday will be a shock — a lot of tears . . . What a Christmas present," Howell said.