Mary Ellen (Winter) Atkins

/tiles/non-collection/o/oh_atkins_2016.xml Image courtesy of Mary Ellen Atkins, provided by the Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives
"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

Abstract & Transcript

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.

Biography

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.

Audio

"Before Today's Technology"

Mary Ellen Atkins describes using a mimeograph machine in her first job.

Mary Ellen Atkins, Secretary, Representative Karl Le Compte of Iowa
Interview recorded August 24, 2016 Deed of Gift
Transcript (PDF)

From the Winning Typing Team to Congress

Mary Ellen Atkins recalls her unique path to Washington, D.C.

Mary Ellen Atkins, Secretary, Representative Karl Le Compte of Iowa
Interview recorded August 24, 2016 Deed of Gift
Transcript (PDF)

Congressman Le Compte's Office: Part One

Mary Ellen Atkins remembers the physical layout of the office where she worked.

Mary Ellen Atkins, Secretary, Representative Karl Le Compte of Iowa
Interview recorded August 24, 2016 Deed of Gift
Transcript (PDF)

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, Secretary, Representative Karl Le Compte of Iowa
Interview recorded August 24, 2016 Deed of Gift
Transcript (PDF)

Secretary's Responsibilities

Mary Ellen Atkins describes her daily tasks as a congressional secretary in the 1940s.

Mary Ellen Atkins, Secretary, Representative Karl Le Compte of Iowa
Interview recorded August 24, 2016 Deed of Gift
Transcript (PDF)

Scott's Hotel

Mary Ellen Atkins remembers finding a place to live in Washington, D.C., in the early 1940s.

Mary Ellen Atkins, Secretary, Representative Karl Le Compte of Iowa
Interview recorded August 24, 2016 Deed of Gift
Transcript (PDF)

Dancing with Officers

Mary Ellen Atkins describes entertainment provided for the residents of Scott's Hotel.

Mary Ellen Atkins, Secretary, Representative Karl Le Compte of Iowa
Interview recorded August 24, 2016 Deed of Gift
Transcript (PDF)

Summers in Iowa

Mary Ellen Atkins recalls continuing to work for the district office during summer recess.

Mary Ellen Atkins, Secretary, Representative Karl Le Compte of Iowa
Interview recorded August 24, 2016 Deed of Gift
Transcript (PDF)

"Turn on Your Radios! The President Has Died!"

Mary Ellen Atkins remembers when President Franklin D. Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945.

Mary Ellen Atkins, Secretary, Representative Karl Le Compte of Iowa
Interview recorded August 24, 2016 Deed of Gift
Transcript (PDF)

Images & Artifacts

Mary Ellen Atkins
<i>Mary Ellen Atkins</i>/tiles/non-collection/o/oh_atkins_2016.xml
Mary Ellen Atkins in her home days before her 93rd birthday in 2016.
Image courtesy of Mary Ellen Atkins, provided by the Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives