Americans liked Ike. Gasoline cost an average of 22 cents a gallon. The hottest song was Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel.” The year was 1956 and a 19-year-old Carbon Hill woman graduated (as salutatorian) from Birmingham Business College, …
Americans liked Ike. Gasoline cost an average of 22 cents a gallon. The hottest song was Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel.” The year was 1956 and a 19-year-old Carbon Hill woman graduated (as salutatorian) from Birmingham Business College, ready to start her job hunt.
But the job found her instead. Faye Jenkins was offered a position in the office of Bankhead Mining Company. Remarkably, 60 years later, she’s still there going strong. Now known as Bankhead Development Company, the firm manages lands for coal and royalty income. Over the years Jenkins has worked in a wide range of positions for various companies under the corporate umbrella.
“I guess my original job title was ‘plain old secretary,’” Miss Jenkins says. “But my actual job was to do a little bit of everything. I learned it as I went; I started out not knowing how to fill out a deposit slip, so I had to pick everything up as from scratch as I went along.”
As she mastered the office technology of the day, some breakthroughs were more successful than others. The first photocopiers used a heat-operated inking system known as Therma-Fax. “It was an old crinkly kind of paper and after a few years it was not even readable. We had to switch to making umpteen copies typed on carbon paper, which was not an easy task.”
Neither was one of the precursors to the computer era, a large payroll-preparation machine that was, judging from her gestures, the size of a large microwave. “We nicknamed it ‘The Monster,’” she recalls. “For good reason.” But she conquered it anyway.
“One of the most rewarding things was when I worked for the Bankhead Foundation,” she says, “giving grants to charitable organizations and to other places where it was really needed. It wasn’t my money, of course, but it made me feel good inside just to know we were able to help.”
She has fond memories of her first bosses, including Walter W. Bankhead, who was a first cousin of Tallulah Bankhead. “I can still hear his voice from the end of the hall saying, ‘Could you please take some dictation?’ ”I was scared to death of him when I first started,” she says, “But nobody was any better to me than he was. I believe he sort of liked to bluff and make you think he was rougher than he was, sort of a Black Bart. Whenever I’d misunderstand a part of the dictation and ask him to repeat it, he’d say it loud and clear so as to not leave any mistake.
“My philosophy is to do my job, regardless of what needs to be done,” Jenkins says. “I’ve been very fortunate. Just about every person I’ve ever worked for has been really nice to me. Respectful. And I’ve been the same way toward them. So I think it works both ways.”
As for advice to job newcomers on employment longevity and how to make yourself invaluable over the years, she says, “Be a good employee, don’t call in sick if you’re not. Work hard and learn to enjoy your job. Enjoying mine just came naturally to me.”
It also doesn’t hurt to pay attention and become part of your employers’ institutional memory. Jenkins has the reputation at her office of being “a walking encyclopedia” of the company’s history. “I wouldn’t go that far,” she says with a grin, “but if there’s something you needed, I’d probably have a pretty good idea where to find it.”
As to why she’s chosen to work past typical retirement ages, she says, “Getting out of the house is important to me. I think it helps to broaden your mind by just getting out.”
She faced a special challenge in 2006 when she suffered a stroke that left one side paralyzed, but typically she worked hard at rehabilitation and has made a full recovery. Since then, she’s changed her schedule to work just two days a week.
Though her 80th birthday isn’t until Aug. 22, members of her family came from around the country two weekends ago for a special surprise party.
Co-worker Gin Fouts says she found it meaningful that when the partygoers went around a circle and were asked to name the single word that best describes Faye Jenkins, more than half of them answered “A giver.”
When asked the same question about herself now, Jenkins ponders a minute. “Loyalty means a lot to me,” she says. “I’d say ‘loyal.’