FAIRFIELD – Fairfield resident Bonnie Thompson is celebrating 50 years as a secretary, which included a stint working for two members of the U.S. House of Representatives in Washington, D.C.
To mark the occasion, Thompson has written a book about her life titled “If You Can Dream It, You Can Achieve It.” She is now shopping around for a publisher.
“Celebrating a 50-year secretarial career is a huge milestone,” Thompson said. “Since I cannot have a party to celebrate this occasion with the current coronavirus pandemic, this seems to be a good alternative to recognize this milestone.”
Thompson worked as a secretary for U.S. Rep. Fred Schwengel, a Republican who represented southeast Iowa in the U.S. House of Representatives. After his defeat in the 1972 election, Thompson went to work for U.S. Rep. Albert Quie of Minnesota, who was in the running to be Gerald Ford’s vice president. Though the work was rewarding, it was also highly stressful. A doctor told Thompson that she could either stay in Washington D.C. and die, or “go home where it’s sane.” Thompson chose to go home. She has continued her secretarial work in southeast Iowa, lending her services to a few local attorneys, a CPA firm, and several other businesses. She has worked for Hal and Joan Masover since 2006.
Thompson was born Bonita Sue Wiggins, daughter of Dale and Edith Wiggins, and was raised on a farm north of Lockridge, Iowa. She would go on to graduate from Fairfield High School in 1970, but several years before that she had an experience that set her down a career path she’s been on ever since.
As an eighth grader in the building that is now Pence Elementary School, Thompson listened as a voice over the loudspeaker announced a need for help in the office. Any student who had a study hall was encouraged to come lend a hand. Thompson was intrigued, and got permission to go. When she arrived, a school secretary showed her how to take attendance records and perform other bookkeeping tasks.
“I just loved it,” Thompson recalls. “Everything about the office just felt right. I knew that’s what I wanted to do for my career. People struggle for years to find out what they want to do, and I found out in eighth grade.”
Thompson began taking secretarial courses in high school, and continued doing so at Southeast Community College in Burlington.
Thompson had always been interested in politics, government and history. Her dream was to work on Capitol Hill or in the White House, but first she had to start small. During her senior year of high school, she began working for a Mt. Pleasant attorney, Don Gartin, and continued working for him over the summer while she attended Southeast Community College. She told Gartin that she wanted to work on Capitol Hill, and he remarked, “That’s a pretty lofty goal for a 17-year-old.”
Gartin became the Henry County Chairman for U.S. Congressman Fred Schwengel’s campaign. He introduced Thompson to the congressman and relayed her desire to one day work in the nation’s capital.
“But you can’t have her until I’m done with her,” he said.
Gartin said it as a joke, but as luck would have it, in the spring of 1971, he called Thompson into his office to ask, “How soon can you pack your bags?” A job in D.C. had opened up, in the General Accounting Office. But that wasn’t what Thompson wanted. She called Rep. Schwengel to tell him she wanted to work specifically in his office.
The following May, Schwengel informed Thompson that his receptionist was retiring and that he wanted to offer Thompson the position. Thompson finished her final month of class at Southeast Community College, and at 10 p.m. on Graduation Day, she and her parents began the trip to D.C.
“It did not make my parents very happy,” she said. “They had four kids living no more than 50 miles away, and then their baby girl decides to go 1,000 miles away. But they knew that’s what I wanted to do.”
Working for Rep. Schwengel
Fred Schwengel was a historian, and impressed upon his staff the historic nature of their task.
“He told us, ‘You’re living history every day, so take advantage of every opportunity.’ And I did,” Thompson said. “He took us to the Capitol for every joint session of Congress or any special event.”
Thompson worked for Schwengel’s administrative assistant, Allan Schimmel, who dictated a number of the congressman’s speeches for Thompson to type. A big part of Thompson’s job was helping visitors to D.C. People would write to the congressman to inform him they were coming to the capital, and Thompson sent them brochures on local hotels and monuments to see during their stay. She was responsible for arranging their tours of the White House as well as House and Senate chambers.
Sadly for Thompson and her co-workers, Schwengel lost his 1972 re-election bid to Edward Mezvinsky. It was a close race. Thompson still remembers the exact number of votes Schwengel lost by: 763.
On election night, her job was to call every county auditor’s office to get the vote totals. But even before then, she had a suspicion things were looking bleak for the campaign. Thompson often received letters from her mom, who wrote the opponent’s last name as “Mez…” because it was difficult to spell. But two weeks before the election, she wrote to Thompson to tell her that she was finally going to have to learn how to spell it, because it looked like he could win.
Election Night was a bitter pill to swallow that year.
“It was heartbreaking. What do you say to a Congressman when he loses an election after 16 years?” Thompson said.
Thompson had to begin looking for another job. She found it in the office of U.S. Rep. Albert Quie of Minnesota.
“Elections with him were not as much fun because he was so well liked that he got 90 percent of the vote,” Thompson joked. “There was almost no competition, no campaigning. His elections were dull, but at least it gave us job security.”
Thompson recalls that the big event during her time in the capital was the Watergate break-in that eventually led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon.
“Being Republicans, we didn’t want to believe this was happening, but as more news came out, there was no denying it,” she said. “Even [Nixon’s] Republican colleagues in the House and Senate said, ‘You’ve got to resign.’”
The one silver-lining for Thompson and her co-workers was that, after Spiro Agnew stepped down as Nixon’s vice president, it opened the door for Gerald Ford. Ford was best friends with Quie, so when Ford became president after Nixon’s resignation, there was much speculation that he would tab Quie as his VP.
“That got intense,” Thompson said. “We were fielding calls from lots of press.”
During that era of Watergate, Thompson was tasked with copying messages over the phone through shorthand, which she excelled at. In college, she won first place in the state and third in the nation in a shorthand competition. At one point she could render 160 words per minute through shorthand, and 110 words a minute on the typewriter. This shorthand skill came in handy during Watergate because the White House would call every congressional office and read over the phone a press release, giving them a heads up about what was to appear that night on the news. There was no better person to copy down the press release than Thompson.
“We didn’t have fax machines or email back then,” Thompson recalled.
The longest night: Her 20th birthday
One of the interesting stories that Thompson relates in her book occurred during her time as Schwengel’s secretary and involved then Iowa Gov. Robert Ray. U.S. Sen. Harold Hughes invited Ray to give a speech to his committee on drug use in Iowa. Ray informed Schwengel’s office he needed a secretary to redo the speech, and that responsibility eventually fell to Thompson.
Thompson met Ray and his aides at the Washington Hilton Hotel to iron out the speech and type it up.
“We were calling people at midnight and even 1 a.m. back in Iowa to check facts in his speech,” Thompson recalled.
Thompson typed the 20-page speech and showed it to Ray. He was so sleep deprived from traveling all week that he couldn’t read the font, so he asked Thompson to retype the whole thing in all capital letters. So she did. She showed him the speech again, the freshly typed 20 pages. He still couldn’t read it.
After a 2 a.m. snack at a local restaurant, Thompson finally found a different style of typewriter and typed the speech a third time. But she wasn’t done. The following morning, changes were requested to the speech, and Thompson rushed to distribute the 20 pages to different people in the office so they could help retype it, collate all the pages and send the speech to the Senate committee room in an hour.
“When it was all over, I told the governor, ‘You aged me overnight,’” Thompson said. It was literally true. That was her 20th birthday.
When Ray found out it was her birthday, he sent an aide to buy a bottle of champagne and deliver it to Thompson, which she has kept to this very day.
“He sent me a nice note and a charm bracelet with an Iowa flag on it,” Thompson said. “The note said, ‘Now that you’re a year older, maybe you will have more sense than to stay up all night working on a speech.’”