Mary Ellen (Winter) Atkins
"The Congressman kind of interviewed us. He just talked to me. He didn’t [ask me to] do any dictation or ask about my abilities in typing. He just accepted that I was going to be alright. He asked me if I’d like to come to Washington that fall of 1943. I said, ‘Yes, I’d love to.’ So, that was it, because he was home in the summer on summer recess. Then I went back to my town. And, of course, all the mothers in my hometown would say to my mother, ‘How could you let her go all the way to Washington alone?’"
—Mary Ellen Atkins, August 24, 2016
In the fall of 1943, Mary Ellen Atkins started working for Congressman Karl Le Compte of Iowa as a secretary. In her oral history, Atkins remembers interacting with constituents, seeing prominent speakers on the House Floor, and spending her summers working in Le Compte’s Iowa district office. Her description of secretarial tasks— typing and answering phones—reveals the role of young women working on Capitol Hill in the 1940s. Atkins’ memories of her time in Washington, D.C., provide a glimpse of life during the tumultuous World War II era, including her experience living on war rations, attending dances with young military men, and witnessing President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s funeral procession in March 1945.
From September 1943 to June 1947, Mary Ellen (Winter) Atkins worked as a secretary for Representative Karl Le Compte of Iowa. As Atkins greeted constituents, answered the phones, and worked in Le Compte’s Iowa district office during her summers, she developed a deep understanding of the district’s interests and concerns.
Born in 1923, Atkins grew up in Centerville, Iowa, with her two younger sisters. Her father, Abijah Winter, was an accountant, and her mother, Hazel (Kirkland), was his secretary. While attending Centerville High School, the local newspaper covered Atkins’ success in shorthand and typing competitions, in which teams won by making as few mistakes as possible in the allotted time.
After graduating in 1941, she worked as a secretary at a local soybean mill and attended Centerville Junior College. The county’s Republican chairman read about her secretarial skills and recommended her to Congressman Le Compte. After a brief interview, Le Compte hired Atkins as a secretary in his Washington office.
Atkins moved to the District of Columbia in September 1943, and resided at Scott’s Hotel, a local boardinghouse for young women. While she worked, she attended speech and writing classes at Georgetown University. Atkins met her husband, Don Atkins, Jr., at weekly dances and banquets for boarders and local military officers hosted by Scott’s Hotel. They were married on June 29, 1947, and later moved to California. Atkins continues to reside in California and enjoys living close to her two sons, Don III, and David.
"Before Today's Technology"
Mary Ellen Atkins describes using a mimeograph machine in her first job.
From the Winning Typing Team to Congress
Mary Ellen Atkins recalls her unique path to Washington, D.C.
Congressman Le Compte's Office: Part One
Mary Ellen Atkins remembers the physical layout of the office where she worked.
Congressman Le Compte's Office: Part Two
Mary Ellen Atkins compares the modern Longworth House Office Building to when she worked there in 1940s.
Mary Ellen Atkins describes her daily tasks as a congressional secretary in the 1940s.
Mary Ellen Atkins remembers finding a place to live in Washington, D.C., in the early 1940s.
Dancing with Officers
Mary Ellen Atkins describes entertainment provided for the residents of Scott's Hotel.
Summers in Iowa
Mary Ellen Atkins recalls continuing to work for the district office during summer recess.