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  • I have worked with a lot of interesting people in my career. I could probably write 500 stories just about the 500 most interesting people I’ve gotten to know on the job, and that would only put a dent in the stories I’d have to tell. But, one of the more memorable people was Pelly. Pelly was from Chicago originally, but had been in the DC area since 1984.

    I first worked with him while I was still in the Philadelphia office, around 1995. I was on a team that was looking at reorganizing the agency’s Administrative support functions. Pelly worked in Headquarters for the Director of the Administrative Services Division (ASD), who, as it turned out, would eventually take over a lot of the functions that we had been handling in the 5 regional offices, of which Philly was one. (I would eventually become the ASD Director, myself – much later on).

    Pelly was gathering some data for an analysis his boss had asked him to do, and he was pumping me for details and information about what we did in a regional office for his analysis. He seemed like a decent enough chap, fairly intelligent and well spoken, albeit a royal pain in the ass while he was conducting his analysis. I would learn later that the reason he was such a pain in my ass was, I was the only regional Administrative Officer (AO) who was cooperating with him, so he needed to get all of his data from me. The other 4 AO’s might have been trying to protect their turf, so they were avoiding Pelly at all costs. I was thinking more globally about what was best for the agency, and for the taxpayer, (which I’ve always considered myself to be, first and foremost).

    I just figured the chips would fall where they would, in terms of my own career. I never worried about that too much. I just came to work and did the best job I could each day. I had worked my way up to the AO job, having started there 12 years earlier as a lowly Supply Clerk Typist, from which I moved up to a Support Services Supervisor, then the Assistant AO, and finally had moved into the AO position, after 10 years in the office. The AO ran all of the administrative functions for the whole region.

    As we started to meet as a team, myself and the other 4 AO’s from around the country, they all eventually came around, and we put together a great plan for the administrative functions of the agency. In the process, we basically planned ourselves out of our jobs. We dubbed ourselves the “Kevorkian Society”, committing group career suicide. But, we all landed somewhere after all the dust settled. In my case, folks in both the Minneapolis and the D.C. offices were impressed with my skills and attitude, and I got offers for jobs in both offices, on the same day. I wound up picking DC, mainly because my Dad had just passed away and I didn’t want to be that far away from Mom (she was living in New Jersey at the time). DC was only a 3 hour drive, while Minneapolis was halfway across the damn country. Not to mention, much colder in wintertime, and half a country away from any ocean. All factors that pointed me to DC, instead.
  • I had never planned to come into headquarters so early on in my career. There was nothing about the idea of headquarters that appealed to me. I’d always considered it the “Black Hole”, where all good things came to die. We’d always send stuff up there, but never get anything back. I liked working out in the field, where the rubber met the road, where I could provide direct support and assistance to the inspectors. But, it was the move that made the most sense at the time, and so I came into HQ, determined to make it a better place than it had been, up to that point.

    One of the first people I met on my first day on the job in DC was Pelly. He was quick to show me around the huge complex that was headquarters. There were actually 3 different buildings in the complex, consisting of a really old one with very few windows, the one that is right on the National Mall, where all of the big cheeses worked, and then the main building, which was one of the largest government buildings, anywhere. It spanned 2 large city blocks, consisted of 7 wings on 8 different floors, 6 above ground and 2 below, and had all kinds of weird passages and shortcuts and underground tunnels and overhead bridges that connected it to the building on the mall. Pelly knew his way around the entire complex, and had a million stories to tell about the place. It was amazing all the things he knew, and in a very short period of time, I was able to figure out how to get around the place without getting lost. I always appreciated that Pelly had done that for me. The way he moved around, and would just seem to show up out of nowhere at the oddest times, reminded me of Robert DeNiro’s character in a very strange movie from 1985 called “Brazil”. That character could have been Pelly. In and out of the shadows.

    One of my new peers in the office started kidding me that since I’d made friends with Pelly, I was never going to be able to shake him. He apparently was a real outcast in headquarters. He never fit in, there. He had apparently been brought in from Chicago to be the leader of a team, back in ’84, and found himself in over his head, crashed and burned in 6 months, had to be pulled out of that job, and had just been marginalized and put into off-the-beaten path jobs, ever since. He would roam the complex looking for interesting work to get involved in. Nobody seemed to know what his job actually was, least of all, Pelly. Just a lost soul looking to make a difference.

    I was brought in to put together a National Field Supply Center and ordering system in the DC area for all 8000 food inspectors around the country, and I had to stand it up and have it ready to do business in less than 3 months’ time. It was a huge job, and it was mine to either sink or swim with. I had never done anything of that magnitude before in my life, but my new bosses had nothing but confidence in my capabilities, and completely empowered me to do what I saw fit to make it work. I was able to assemble my own team – well, I inherited a few misfits to handle the other functions of my new role, but I put together the team to handle the Supply system. I not only pulled it off, I apparently did such a good job, the Secretary of Agriculture honored me with a coveted Secretary’s Honor Award for Reinvention of Government the following year. I was able to save the government over one and a half million dollars in the first year, alone. I had made an immediate mark in headquarters, and helped to turn the reputation of the joint around for employees in the field. The reason I was able to document those savings was Pelly’s initial pain in the ass report, which showed how much we were spending on running 5 different field supply systems out of the 5 regions, previously. Without that, I never would have been able to compare what I spent that first year with what we’d spent the previous year.
  • Unfortunately, that was the last really meaningful project Pelly would ever complete, until the very end of his career. He had a lot of trouble staying focused on anything long enough to finish it, and managers would quickly get frustrated with him, and not give him anything meaningful to work on. He was assigned to the Y2K planning. Remember when everyone was worried about the whole I.T. world crashing down around us when the clock struck 2000, because of how the years were listed in most systems? Y2K. It never happened, but a lot of people wasted a lot of time planning for the worst. Pelly was our Y2K guy. That was his project for the year and a half leading up to it. Whenever anyone saw Pelly coming, they went the other way, closed their office door, quickly got on the phone, anything to avoid Pelly. I never avoided him, but would always say, “O.K., Pelly, you have 5 minutes – get to the point.” If I didn’t, he’d be there for the next half-hour, maybe even an hour, getting nothing at all accomplished. He just couldn’t focus himself, and no one was doing anything to keep him focused.

    At one point, Pelly got traded to another program in the agency, for a future draft choice and a player to be named later, or some such deal. They basically dumped him on someone else. I didn’t see him for a long time, and had no idea where he went. Then, I got lured over to our Office of Public Health Science by a Director who was planning to retire and wanted someone to be her understudy, to then take the job over when she left. They call it “succession planning”, and it was the most thorough example of it that I’ve ever seen. She showed me all the ropes of a very complex program, which included detailed reports to Congress several times a year, initiating funding requests for complex scientific initiatives that required becoming conversant in the initiatives themselves, so you could sell it to the powers that be, and working with our laboratories to ensure they had all the equipment and sampling supplies that they needed to execute the approved initiatives. Then, you had to follow up with congressional reports to show how the money was being applied, and what the results of the investment were. You really had to know what you were doing, and it took awhile to learn it. I got very good at it.

    I loved everything about the job, and low and behold, guess where Pelly had ended up? He worked for this lady now, and so, he would be working for me. I refused to just let him wander all over the place without any focused assignments, so I found a few meaningful reports that would require him to do a lot of research and had specific deliverable dates each month, and that became his job while he worked for me the next few years. Once or twice, I had to ding him for missing a deliverable, but he worked hard to focus his efforts, and he got really good at the analysis and reporting. He would occasionally try to do more than those reports, but he could not keep his focus on that and the reports, so I would always have to reel him back in, and tell him the reports were his priority. This kept him from being all over the map those last few years. He did meaningful work for me.

    After the lady retired, I really needed a Deputy Director, but didn’t have a personnel slot to fill it with. I’d have to wait until Pelly retired, and then use his slot to create the Deputy position from. He had been eligible to go for several years. I kept hoping he would start thinking about retirement. He finally came to me and said he was planning to retire in May, and wanted to go to a retirement seminar for 3 days to plan his retirement. I agreed send him to the seminar, and started making plans to turn his job into my Deputy positon.

    He came back saying he wasn’t ready to go yet. Damn – I’d gotten my hopes up. He learned about all the things he needed to do to be ready to retire at the seminar, and he just wasn’t there yet. I said fine. My Deputy position would have to wait. About 10 months later, I asked him how his retirement planning was going. “Oh, we’ve done everything we needed to do.” So, when are you retiring? “Well, I was hoping I could get one more meaningful assignment before I left. Something that I could go out on a high note with.” Pelly, the reports that you do for me now are your job. I need them, and that’s what you’re good at. I have nothing else to offer you. That’s what you’ve shown me that you can handle. Honestly, when you do go, I’ll be assigning those to someone else to do, and plan to use your slot to create my Deputy position. (This may sound harsh, but I always tried to be up-front with people. I didn’t like to play games). “Maybe I could be your Deputy for a year or so?” No way, Pelly. I need someone with leadership skills in that job. Unfortunately, that’s not something you’ve ever demonstrated. Maybe you need to get out of government, and go find something meaningful on your own? What you see here, is what you get. I have nothing else for you.

    The next day, he submitted his retirement papers. The team wanted to give him a nice retirement party, and he agreed to it. He worked with them on a theme for his party. Pelly was a real man of the 70’s, so for his retirement party theme he chose “Movin’ On – Stayin’ Alive!” Some of the ladies created the signage, and Carol ordered the cake from Costco.

    On the morning of the party, I came in to the office, and stopped by Carol’s office. “So, how did the cake turn out?” She had picked it up from Costco on the way into the office that morning. She had a very sheepish look on her face, looked at me despondently, and said, “Wait ‘til you see what they did.” She took me around to the office where the cake was sitting. “It was supposed to say, “Congratulations, Pelly – Moving On!” Right, that’s what he wanted as his theme. Carol had such a distraught look on her face as she showed me the cake. I took one look, and just burst out laughing – it took me about 5 minutes to recover. The bakery at Costco had screwed the message on the cake up. It read, “Congratulations, Pelly - MOVE ON!” After all of my efforts to get him to MOVE ON, so I could use his slot for my more critical Deputy position, it was a total bakery Freudian slip! It was more truthful than what it was supposed to say!

    Fortunately, the icing around the base of the half-sheet cake was the same color as the lettering of the message on the cake, and Pam and I were able to rewrite the word on the cake with a plastic knife, to read “Movin’ On”, instead of “Move On”.

    But, for years afterwards, that story would always bring Carol and I to tears of laughter, just remembering that moment, her dread, followed by my laughter, and how we fixed it so no one ever knew the difference.
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