Nancy Mayer-Whittington Oral History
Interview Session II
February 10, 2011
Ms. Woodbury: Good morning. Today’s date is Thursday, February 10, 2011. Nancy, for
today’s interview session, I would like to begin with your experience in high
school and if we have time today, your work with the court here in D.C.. Where
did you go to high school?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: I went to the Academy of the Holy Cross, which is located in Kensington,
Ms. Woodbury: What year did you start?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: I started there in 1967.
Ms. Woodbury: At that time, how big was the Academy of the Holy Cross?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: Oh, it had about 500 students and it was an all girls’ Catholic high school.
Ms. Woodbury: Did it cover grades 9 through 12?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: Yes.
Ms. Woodbury: Looking back on it now, what was the best part of your high school
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: I think the best part was the friendships and camaraderie. It was a really
good experience for me being in an all girls environment, having grown up in an
all girls family. It was kind of a natural continuation of that and it was a school
that challenged me. I really grew academically They had a lot of tough classes
and thought provoking assignments. I had good relationships with the teachers
and ended up learning a lot and being very well prepared for college.
Ms. Woodbury: Nancy, you said that one of the things that was positive for you about the
school was that it was an all girls school. Did you regard that as valuable to you
at the time, when you were going, or looking back on it?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: Well both. Probably more valuable looking back on it. I was not as
reflective when I was living it. I was very shy at this time in my life and having
all girls in my classes was great — they were very supportive and would not make
fun of you. When I was in the 5th and 6th grades, I attended a public school and
sometimes I was afraid to make a mistake in front of the boys because they would
make fun of me. Also, I was the one that would raise my hand and wait patiently
to be called on while the boys yelled things out. Sometimes I’d think I knew an
answer, but I didn’t get my turn. At Holy Cross, the environment was very
supportive with everyone taking turns and respecting someone’s initial reluctance
to talk and letting them talk when they were ready. Not nearly as competitive as
in a coed environment.
Ms. Woodbury: Was there any part of your years in high school that you didn’t like or
looking back that was not a good experience?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: Well yes, in high school you were expected to get up and present papers
and positions, in an effort to develop presentation skills. I was afraid of my
shadow back then and sometimes. I would get so nervous that I would trip over
my words. I hated that part of high school. I hated the whole idea that I had to
get up in front of people. Ultimately, looking back, it was the beginning attempt
to try to get over my fear of public speaking. But I still dreaded every time I had
to get up in front of everyone, despite the fact that other girls were very
supportive of me. I had this physiological reaction of a rapid heartbeat and
stumbling over my words – and it took me quite a while to feel comfortable
speaking in public. Looking back that was an aspect of high school that I didn’t
Ms. Woodbury: While you were still in high school did you develop skills to help you get
over that or did it ever get easier while you were still in high school?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: Not really because you were expected to do presentations at various times.
It wasn’t so much that you ever got so regular with it that you felt comfortable. It
wasn’t until I was starting at the courthouse and had to regularly give the
orientation speech to new jurors that it got a bit easier. I did it so often, that I
finally got to the point where I wasn’t in mortal fear of giving the presentation.
In high school there were just enough speeches that helped me get organized, but
not enough practice in doing it.
Ms. Woodbury: Were there any other things about your high school years that, looking
back on them, you think of as being very good or being negative?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: Well, in spite of my intense fear of speaking in front of people, I joined
the drama club and I would like to think it was because I thought if I did that
more often I would be better, but it really wasn’t that. I joined it because I liked
working behind the scenes. I liked helping with the lights and I liked helping
with the different aspects of the production to the point where I became stage
manager for most of the plays we presented. Ultimately, I became vice president
of the drama club in my junior year and president of the drama club in my senior
year. All the while never having had to perform a role on stage because that was
not my interest. But I learned how to organize things. I learned how to direct
people to do things and got that type of experience and I thought, “I kind of like
Ms. Woodbury: Were there other people in your family who were interested in drama?
What was the catalyst to make you sign up for the drama club?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: It just looked like a lot of fun. And Holy Cross had a good reputation for
having really good theatre productions. It didn’t hurt that my boyfriend was on
the stage crew at Our Lady of Good Counsel which was a boys school. We had
lots in common to talk about. Our cast parties would sometimes overlap and we
would just have a good time. My oldest sister wasn’t interested in the drama
club, but my younger sister, who was a year behind me, did some of the behind
the scenes things too. Not on the stage but helping with the production. When we
did the “King and I” my youngest sisters, who were twins and five years old,
played the part of the King’s youngest children. They actually went on the stage!
But, really, my dad was the one who acted all through law school at
Catholic University’s Hartke Theatre. He had a great speaking voice and the best
sense of timing in delivering a line. We never saw him perform, but we did see
him speak publicly very often. He had pictures of his performances in an album
that my mother put together. It’s funny but when we were growing up we always
put on shows for our relatives, everything from plays, to skits that we wrote, to
talent shows. My grandfather wanted us to become the next “Lennon Sisters”
because we all had fairly good voices, but that fear of a truly public performance
kept my grandfather’s wish from being pursued.
Ms. Woodbury: It became a shared family experience?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: Yes and that’s how I met some of my friends at Holy Cross who joined
the drama club and either performed or worked behind the scenes with me.
Ms. Woodbury: Over the time you were at Holy Cross were you on balance a good student
or did you strive to be a good student?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: Yes, I was a good student. I was on the honor role all the time. I wasn’t a
straight “A” student but I didn’t have to work extremely hard to get good grades.
My older sister, Mary Pat, worked really hard and was a straight “A” student. My
parents were really big on education. There were not many excuses for not
bringing home good grades because they felt like we had enough time to study
and encouragement to study. My dad had gone to law school and my mom had
gone to nursing school and they had both continued their education. In our
family, it was just assumed that you were going to work hard in school and do the
best you can.
Ms. Woodbury: Were there certain subjects or teachers that you liked best or who were
favorites for you?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: I loved all my English classes. I love reading and I like to write. And one
nun, Sister Thomas Aquinas, was just amazing. She was able to present a novel
with both the ability to tell you what you should look for, when and where the
author lived and their background and how they came to their points of views
while still enjoying reading the book. She always made everything come to life.
She was really good. I also had a world religion teacher, Miss Homorsky who
recognized there were religions outside of Catholicism. We learned about
Buddhism, and we learned about Islamic practices and Protestant and Jewish faith
traditions and that was really an eye-opening experience for me and it was
presented very well.
Ms. Woodbury: At that time were other religions, say from Asia, Africa also covered in
the high school curriculum?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: Yes
Ms. Woodbury: So you learned about Buddhism and Hinduism as well?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: Yes
Ms. Woodbury: Was your English teacher someone you had for more than one year or was
it just a single year?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: I had her for two years. I can’t think of the names of some of my other
English teachers, but I just consistently liked that subject and I did well in it too.
And I liked creative writing and that was explored in our junior and senior years.
Ms. Woodbury: Was the creative writing class a separate class? For example, to write
stories or how was that done?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: It was just a sub-set of the English classes, not a separate class but they
did encourage everybody to try different mediums. I know that when I was a
junior, I was a runner-up in a national poetry contest. But, I had to read my poem
in front of an audience and I wasn’t really thrilled about doing that. I almost
wished I hadn’t won because I still had such of fear of public speaking.
Ms. Woodbury: Where did you have to go to read it?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: Down at St. John’s College High School in Washington, D.C. in an
auditorium with lots of people. But I got a trophy for my poem and my family
came to the presentation and everyone was very proud of me – so I guess it
wasn’t so bad.
Ms. Woodbury: Did you continue writing poetry or doing creative writing after high
school? Was that an interest that continued?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: Yes, when I was in college, my grandfather who was 94 at the time passed
away. He was kind of a character and big influence on me and all of our family
so I wrote a poem about him. He died in June and I wrote the poem and gave it
to my mother the next year as a St. Patrick’s Day gift since that would be our first
St. Patrick’s Day without him. My mom, in particular, was thrilled about it, and
my aunts and uncles and everybody thought it was wonderful. It was not a work
of art or anything close to that but it captured some of the essence of my
grandfather and it gave me and the rest of our family something concrete to
remember him by. I wrote some other poems about our family from time to time
and sort of became the one who captured family events in poetry. I wrote a poem
for each of my sister’s weddings. They were read at the church initially by one of
my sisters, and later as I got over my fear of public speaking, I was able to read
them. The poems created a little bit of a chronology of our family history.
Ms. Woodbury: When you were in high school, apart from your work with the drama club,
were there other extracircular activities at the school that you were involved in, in
or outside the school?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: Not really at Holy Cross because I was in a car pool and that limited my
after school activities. But when you have nine sisters and you live down the
street from your eight cousins and you live next door to a family that has seven
children, and then you have lots of things going on in the neighborhood that keep
you busy. There was also lots of home work. And then I started working when I
Ms. Woodbury: What did you do?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: I worked as a sales clerk at Montgomery Ward two afternoons a week and
Saturdays. Everyone in our family pretty much started working when they turned
Ms. Woodbury: Do you remember what department you were in?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: Children’s wear.
Ms. Woodbury: Did you enjoy that experience?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: You know, I did because I liked the idea of working with parents and
children. I felt like I knew a lot about children’s clothing since we had such a big
family. So, when parents came in and were not sure about sizes, I had some feel
for that. But I was still growing out of my shy phase. From time to time, I would
work in the back room stocking merchandise and taking inventory. I would work
for hours by myself and get a lot done and not have to interact with customers. I
remember thinking at one point when I was working in the stockroom that this
might be a good career for me. I could stay out of the public eye and feel
satisfied with my work and get paid for it. What more could I ask for?
Ms. Woodbury: But, you also have contact with customers? Were those contacts
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: Yes, and I had a really, really tough supervisor. Her name was Miss
Raugh, I remember to this day that she was really hard to please and so there was
always a little bit of tension whenever you worked with her. She never actually
yelled at me, I just saw her yell at other people and I saw the way she handled
herself and that made me nervous. That’s another reason that the stockroom had
such an appeal for me. But eventually I realized that I did like helping people and
that was a big part of the job. So, after learning how to run the register — in those
days there was no bar code or anything, you had to input the information yourself
and that was also part of their inventory so you had to be careful to key in
everything correctly – I started to really enjoy the work. I did like interacting
with people and lots of the customers brought their children with them and I liked
helping them find clothes, so I think that was a good fit for me.
Ms. Woodbury: Overall it was a good fit? Did you develop any interest at that point in
business? I don’t know that management would be the right word, but in how
they ran the children’s department or how they ran the company or the store?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: Well, I liked when they asked me what I thought about something. I liked
that I had some input in the decision making in the department. I liked arranging
things and setting up displays. But I never thought about a career there because I
realized that there was a lot of night and weekend work. I felt like it was
something to do to make money, but I don’t think I ever thought about a career in
Ms. Woodbury: I wanted to ask whether that from the time you started high school was it
assumed or encouraged that you and your sisters would go on to college?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: Yes, it was really very much assumed. My parents, especially my dad,
weren’t the kind who preached a lot. He didn’t sit down and tell us what to do as
much as he would tell us about his experiences and how valuable a college
education was and how valuable it is to keep learning. But it was just assumed
we were going to go to college. It wasn’t a matter of, if you were going to go, it
was where you were going to go.
Ms. Woodbury: Nancy, when you were still in high school did you have any idea what
you wanted to do when you got out of college or what kind of classes you wanted
to major in while you were in college?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: I had the idea that I would like to be a writer and in particular I wanted to
be a sports writer. I had an aunt and an uncle who were brother and sister and
they had season tickets to the Washington Redskins. When they had a couple
extra tickets they would take turns bringing some of us to the games and I just got
hooked on the Redskins. I followed the Washington Senators until they left town
and then the Baltimore Orioles. When I went to college, I started attending
football and basketball games and fell in love with the Maryland Terrapins. I
would read the sports page and figured out how I could have done a better job
writing the story. So I had a vague idea that I would like to be a sports writer or
any kind of writer. But to be quite honest, mostly I wanted to be a graduate. I
hate to say I didn’t have a burning passion to be a doctor or something like that…
I just kind of wanted to go through college and see where it led me. I think even
then I knew it would be hard to make a living being a sports writer or just being a
writer. I had done a little research on that. Unless you had a syndicated column
you were considered a freelance writer and that wasn’t what people did right out
of school. So as much as I thought I would love to be a writer I knew I would
probably have to do something else to earn a living at least right after college.
That was my state of mind – I would just have to see what comes up.
Ms. Woodbury: During your high school summers, did you have a job or jobs?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: From the time I was 16, I worked during the school year a couple days
and then Saturdays and during the summer I worked as many hours as they would
Ms. Woodbury: In the children’s department?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: Yes, at Montgomery Ward
Ms. Woodbury: Did you ever see if you could find a job relating to sports writing while
you were still in high school?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: Well, no because at that time there weren’t any women sports writers. I
had written some letters to the editor at the [Washington] Post about some
things… I actually got one of them published one time.
Ms. Woodbury: About sports issues?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: Yes, why they didn’t have a “Sonny Jurgensen Day” at RFK stadium to
honor Sonny upon his retirement from the Washington Redskins. The Redskins
had held special ceremonies at halftime of other games to celebrate the careers of
a players who had retired. I wrote to the Post to see if they could find out what
was the reason behind the decision not to hold a retirement ceremony. Parts of
my letter made it into a sports writer’s column – I felt like I had actually been
published! What a thrill!
Ms. Woodbury: There weren’t that many openings [for girls]?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: No, Christine Brennan was probably the first female sports writer in the
Washington area and she would periodically decry the absence of other female
sports writers. I remember standing around talking about sports with a group of
guys when I was in high school and most of the guys were in disbelief that I
knew something about football, basketball and baseball. And they were even
more surprised when I expressed an opinion. It was clearly not the norm for a
woman to discuss sports.
Ms. Woodbury: Unusual for a girl or woman to have that interest or knowledge?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: Right, and then to want to take it to the next level and actually write about
it. Well, that was unheard of……
Ms. Woodbury: Were the aunt and uncle who took you to the Redskins games; were they
both very knowledgeable about sports?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: Yes. And my father who was very knowledge about sports.
Ms. Woodbury: What year did you graduate from high school?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: 1971
Ms. Woodbury: Did you then go straight to college?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: Yes.
Ms. Woodbury: Where did you go?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: The University of Maryland.
Ms. Woodbury: Where you living on campus or were you living at home?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: I lived on campus the first year in one of the high-rise dorms in
Cumberland Hall. I remember I was paying for some of my college education
even though the tuition at Maryland was cheaper than at Holy Cross, but the
room and board was expensive. But yes, I lived on campus the first year and then
I came home for the second year, somewhat because I was home a lot during the
Ms. Woodbury: You mean it was a waste of money?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: Yes, a little bit. And of course, I had a boyfriend and he was two years
older and he was living at home too at that time.
Ms. Woodbury: In your neighborhood?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: No. The boyfriend I dated in high school lived next door, but this was
someone else. But I was going home a lot on weekends. It’s kind of hard to
explain, but in a big family there is always something going on, there is always
someone’s birthday, or anniversary or some other event. When I lived on
campus, I would find myself missing out on some of that, and I wanted to come
home. I really didn’t give myself an opportunity to meet a lot of people on
campus that year because I was dating a guy who was going to school there so I
just hung around with him and his friends. So the second year I came home and
lived at home for my sophomore year. Then for my junior and senior years, I got
an apartment off campus with a friend.
Ms. Woodbury: After you graduated from high school and started college did you stay in
contact with friends you made and teachers from your high school years?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: No, not teachers really. Somewhat because I still had sisters going to
school there so I would hear about what was going on with the teachers I knew.
But I didn’t have contact with them. My two best friends from high school were
Patricia Farrell and Anne Baldwin. Patricia went to Dayton University and Anne
went to the University of Arizona. We kept in touch and still keep in touch to
this day, but nobody that I was close to in high school went to Maryland. I went
from a 500 population school at Holy Cross to a 35,000 population school at
Maryland. This was what I wanted. I wanted the whole big school experience
after having a very small high school. I did make some new friends at Maryland.
Ms. Woodbury: Was your older sister at the University of Maryland?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: No, she went to Frostburg State because she wanted to be a teacher and
they waived your tuition if you going to be a teacher and work after graduation
for the state of Maryland. So she went there for her four years of college.
Ms. Woodbury: Once you were enrolled at the University of Maryland what year were you
at the time you were asked to declare a major?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: You didn’t have to declare until your junior year. When I first started I
wanted to be journalism major. I started taking classes with this in mind. But
then they made this new requirement that you had to take a foreign language.
Even though I had taken French for four years at Holy Cross, and therefore didn’t
need a foreign language in college for the general requirement, I did need one to
be a journalism major at Maryland and I remember thinking I was not good at
languages. I didn’t have a really good ear for languages. I had worked hard at
Holy Cross to get through French. It was probably very shortsighted, but I was
not going to do a major that required a foreign language. So I made that my
minor and I declared a history major.
Ms. Woodbury: Was there a particular field in history that you wanted to specialize in?
American History or European History?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: American History and I had a professor who was outstanding. He is one
of the main reasons that I became a history major.
Ms. Woodbury: Who was that?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: His name was Gordon Prange
Ms. Woodbury: What was his specialty?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: American history in particular World War I and World War II. He was a
special attaché to General MacArthur. He wrote the book . This book was about
the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. It was the screenplay for the movie Tora,
Tora, Tora. He was an older professor but he was a dynamic speaker. He had
interviewed many of the major participants to World War II and he could give
firsthand accounts of their personalities and their views of the war. Dr. Prange
was absolutely amazing! Students would stand outside his lecture hall to hear
him talk. They would be hanging in through the windows to listen to him
because his classes were so popular and they would fill up so quickly. When I
learned that the administration gave preference to his class to students that were
history majors, that made my decision about my major an easy one. He made
history come alive.
Ms. Woodbury: Given how popular he was, his classes were probably large. Were you
able to have any personal contact with him? Do you go to his office hours or go
to a seminar?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: I talked to him several times after class because he would make himself
available for questions and discussions after class was over. I remember my first
class with him was my second semester of my freshman year. I signed up for
classes as early as I could and I lucked out and got into his class. I didn’t know
much and I didn’t really read my syllabus thoroughly. We had to choose a
history book and write a report about it. It wasn’t until I was finished with it that
I realized that the book I had chosen, The Guns of August, was required reading
for the class and that you weren’t supposed to….
Ms. Woodbury: Choose one of those?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: Yes. But I had finished the report and I wasn’t sure what I should do. I am
sort of panicking and thinking maybe I am going to have to drop the class
because he will know I did not read the syllabus and he will wonder what kind of
student I am. So I waited until after class and I got into the line to talk to him. I
was the last person to talk to Dr. Prange because I let people go in front of me, so
nobody would know how dumb I was. When I told Dr. Prange what had
happened he took my paper from me and “Did you do a good job”? I said “I
think so.” And, he said, “Well, that is all that matters to me.”
Ms. Woodbury: How nice of him and how supportive. That’s a very nice story to hear
about a professor with these huge classes — that he was interested in his students
at that level and wants to encourage them.
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: Yes. I got an “A” on the paper and I was like….
Ms. Woodbury: Floating?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: Yes, actually, and I was thinking “Oh my gosh” this is the best possible
experience I’m ever going to have. It made me appreciate him as a person not just
as a professor. He taught four classes Pre- World War I, World War I, Pre-World
War II and World War II and I took all four of his classes. He made such an
impression on all of his students – he was a legend at Maryland. I hated taking
my World War II class with him because I knew it was the last class I would be
able to have with him. On my final exam in my last class I got my first “A+”
from him. He said he had never given an “A+”, usually just “A’s”.
Ms. Woodbury: That was also a high point?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: Absolutely! I still have that exam in my memory box because he wrote
at the end of my paper, “Your work justifies a professor’s existence.” I was so
humbled and appreciative of his words and even more on the impact he had on
my academic life at Maryland. About 10 years after I graduated from Maryland,
I received a note from one of Dr. Prange’s teaching assistants. He told me that he
had found my name on the rolls of students who had taken Dr. Prange’s classes.
Dr. Prange had been diagnosed with a terminal illness and his former teaching
assistants wanted to put together a book of letters to Dr. Prange from his students
letting him know how he had impacted our lives. I wrote to him about his
reaction to my mistake in writing a report on The Guns of August and how he had
made me feel good about my report – not bad about the mistake. I told him how
much I loved his lectures that were really storytelling at its best. I let him know
that his words on my final exam were the highlight of my time at Maryland. It
felt really good to be able to let him know, again, how much I had learned from
him and that it wasn’t just about history. He died a year later after sending out a
thank you note to all of his students who had contributed to his memory book.
Even now, so many years later, I feel a glow and can’t help but smile when I
think about him. He was really one of a kind.
Ms. Woodbury: Were there other teachers from your college years who made a big impact
on you in terms of either a personal relationship or their being able to
communicate their love of their subject?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: I took a creative writing class when I was a senior and, of course, I don’t
remember the professor’s name. He was so encouraging and so open to trying
different things. I really enjoyed that because he wanted to help us take risks
with our writing. He wanted to see us get a little more depth in our writing, and
to remember there are no rules. He would say, “You know, you have got to write
from your heart.” I found a new way of expressing myself in that class. That has
helped me with sideline of writing creative non-fiction stories through the years.
I had some other good teachers, I had a good teacher who taught family
history and that was really fascinating. But, I guess what I do remember from my
time at Maryland was that I could count less than five teachers who I thought
were not up to the task. The majority of my professors were quite good!
Ms. Woodbury: Looking back, do you regard college as a good experience? Positive?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: Yes. I’m coming from this small Catholic high school where the Viet
Nam war was going on and we debated that in the classroom and we had
opportunities to express ourselves, but it was much more subtle, subdued. Then I
go to Maryland and there’s tear gas and there’s marching on the administrative
offices because they had fired a quirky professor or they had changed some rule
that got everyone up in arms. College students were actively trying to influence
their environment and I was impressed with their knowledge and passion. The
Viet Nam war was the biggest catalyst for student marching and the war seemed
to go on forever. One day you have the students marching and protesting and tear
gas being used to break up the crowd and then another day you would have this
big art festival going on with all these really fabulous student created works of art
and another time you’d have people playing ethnic music and there would be lots
of dancing. I just thought it was so amazing that attending a big university could
mean that all of this could co-exist and appeal to so many different people. It was
Ms. Woodbury: Very exciting.
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: So exciting, yes I loved it.
Ms. Woodbury: Did you carry on your interest in drama when you went to the University
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: No. No, because I ultimately realized I was more interested in arranging
things and organizing people and projects than I was in actually being a part of
the drama group.
Ms. Woodbury: Were you involved in any extracurricular activities at the University of
Maryland that allowed you to develop those skills further?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: No, not really because I was still working…
Ms. Woodbury: At Montgomery Ward?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: Yes, at some point in college I transitioned to a place called Memco,
which was a forerunner for Costco. It was a big retail store in Rockville where
you had to show a card to get in. You had to be a member. It had groceries and
clothes and household items, and I was working there because they paid me more
money than I was making at Montgomery Ward. I had a friend who started
working there and he said you have got to come here. It was also a little bit
closer to my home.
Ms. Woodbury: Did you work there all the years you were in college?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: No, I didn’t work the first year of college when I lived on campus. I
worked at Montgomery Wards during the summer all the time and then in my
sophomore year I worked at night again. I started working for Memco in my
Ms. Woodbury: During your college years did you have any discussions with your father
or your mother about what your future career might be or were you thinking
about that on your own?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: I was thinking generally that I wanted to work for the government, the
federal government, because my dad was an attorney with Federal Trade
Commission and he really enjoyed his job. He thought that working for the
government was a good way of giving back. He said it is not necessarily the best
paying job compared to some jobs in the private sector but you get to work on
lots of interesting things that come across your desk. He said there were a lot of
opportunities for work with the government since we lived right outside of D.C..
So I thought that is what I would like to do. I thought maybe I would go to law
school at some point, but that was just sort of a vague idea. I didn’t know how I
would pay for law school and I wasn’t really passionate about practicing law.
My parents were really good about suggesting I should try different things and
see what interested me.
Ms. Woodbury: See what was a good match for you?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: Yes.
Ms. Woodbury: Did you ever think about going to business school while you were in
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: No, not really. Some of this thinking originated at Holy Cross. There
were two tracts that students could follow. There was the college prep path and
the business school path. I knew I was following the college prep path and I had a
lot of assumptions about the business school path that were not necessarily
accurate. To me, the main things you were going to learn in business school were
how to type faster, how to take shorthand and how to be a good assistant. I made
the decision, and I didn’t really share it with anybody, that I wasn’t going to work
very hard to be a good typist. I wasn’t going to be anybody’s secretary. I would
have a secretary someday. I didn’t know what I was going to be doing, but I had
this general idea that I wasn’t going to be a secretary. A lot of women in those
days went to business school and that was the career path. I had two aunts in the
work force. Both of them were secretaries. And although my one aunt always
went to work with gorgeous pearls and high heels, I liked how she dressed but I
didn’t want to be a secretary. I took typing classes at Holy Cross. I think I
sabotaged my efforts to type well because I didn’t want be good at typing and
wind up with a secretarial position. But I didn’t think any of this through very
well because my poor typing skills made it very hard to type my reports and term
papers. My thinking was very shortsighted.
Ms. Woodbury: Was your concern in high school that being interested in business was
going to channel you as a girl, as a women, into a kind of narrow secretarial path
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: Yes, because I don’t think in high school that I really knew a lot of
women managers. I didn’t have a lot of role models of female managers. I didn’t
see a lot of examples of that. I saw more women in traditional roles of nurses,
my mom was a nurse, or teachers, or saleswomen for Avon products. The role
models for people who had leadership roles were all men. My dad headed a
bureau for the Federal Trade Commission. The dad of the big family who lived
next door to us was a CPA for the Government Accounting Office. Our
neighborhood had a lot of government workers but not a lot of role models for the
Ms. Woodbury: Of women doing that kind of work or what they might do?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: Right.
Ms. Woodbury: What year did you graduate from the University of Maryland?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: 1975.
Ms. Woodbury: And you ended up with a BA in History?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: Yes.
Ms. Woodbury: When you graduated did you have any plans to continue with graduate
school or were you planning to get a job out of college?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: I planned on getting a job. I was ready to work.
Ms. Woodbury: You were?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: I wanted to earn some money. I didn’t have a car at the time. No actually
I did have a car. I had a second hand car, but I didn’t have much money left over
after I paid my rent on my apartment and help pay for my tuition. So I wanted to
work so I could earn some money and get a better car and maybe a better location
in which to live. But, at our commencement the speaker was T. Boone Pickens,
who said “Congratulations to all the future taxi cab drivers and wait staff and
messengers of the world because there are no jobs for you.”
Ms. Woodbury: That was a very unusual message for a commencement speaker to deliver
to a newly graduating class.
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: It certainly was depressing. He said the economy was so bad, the worst it
had been in nearly 20 years for new college graduates. Ultimately, his message
was that you have got to be entrepreneurs. You have got to think outside the box.
But all I heard was no jobs. Although, I do have to admit that I was not listening
very carefully. I had a transistor radio and I was listening to the Baltimore
Bullets’ basketball game that day all during my graduation. I really, really liked
sports and it was the third game in the championship series.
Ms. Woodbury: By the time you graduated had you pretty much given up on the idea of
being a sports writer as a career?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: Yes.
Ms. Woodbury: At the time you graduated had you already lined up a job or were you just
starting to look?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: I was starting to look, but I was severely handicapped by my inability to
type 40 words a minute. Plus, the federal government job register was not open.
They had no job openings. The preferences were for veterans coming back from
the war so they really weren’t hiring. My plan had been to work for the
government and then I had a double whammy that they weren’t hiring and they
were looking for people who could type. So I started looking for jobs that
required no typing which was very limiting. In the meantime, after I graduated, I
could work full time at Memco and they were somewhat unionized so that you
got fairly good wages, but I would look every day in the classified section of the
newspaper for jobs and I would follow-up and call and send my resume. I always
got this polite little “sorry” we’re looking for somebody with experience. Of
course, I couldn’t get experience without a job. The whole thing was very
frustrating. I graduated in May of 1975. I sent an application in December of ’75
to The Washington Law Reporter and they called me back for an interview and I
went down for an interview and got the job. No typing required.
Ms. Woodbury: No typing required?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: No typing required and it was a kind of an odd ball job. The Washington
Law Reporter was a family run very small, legal newspaper located in
Washington D.C. Every day I would go down to the Federal Courthouse, the
Superior Courthouse and the Tax Court and write down all the new cases that
were filed the previous day. I would write down just the caption of the case, the
case number, the amount in controversy and whether it was a jury trial or not and
the judge to whom it was assigned. Then, I would pick up slip opinions from the
Courts of Appeals, both the D.C. Appellate Court and Federal Circuit, and then
pick up notices for publication from the Register of Wills. I would write all of
this down by hand on a legal pad. I would often have to wait because someone
else was looking at the document I needed to record. At that time the court only
made one extra press copy, they didn’t make…
Ms. Woodbury: Multiple copies?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: Right. You didn’t have computers on which to look things up. At least
not ones that were available for the press or the public to use. When I was
finished collecting the information, I brought all that information back to the Law
Reporter. At the office, someone would take my hand written notes and make a
mock- up of the paper using a type cast machine. Then, I would proof read the
mock up. While I was waiting for this to happen, I would be proof reading some
other notices for them.
Ms. Woodbury: Your father was lawyer and practiced in D.C.. Did you have any
familiarity with courts before you started this job?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: No. No, I didn’t. I knew the word “court” but I was much more familiar
with the Executive Branch or Legislative Branch just from television and that sort
of thing. But no, I really knew nothing about the courts.
Ms. Woodbury: Internal workings of the court?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: Right
Ms. Woodbury: How long did you stay in this job?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: I stayed at the Law Reporter for about 18 months. It is funny but when
they first offered me the position my father thought it was crazy to take it. He
said you’re making more money right now where you are, at Memco, you work
ten minutes from where you live and now you’re going to have to take a bus all
the way downtown to make less money. I said I know that, but I have to get my
foot in the door somewhere. I can’t be pushing a broom at night while I’m on the
late shift at Memco. I have a college degree I want to start using it. So I started
at the Law Reporter in February of ’76, and that was my first exposure at the
courts really because I got to go to the courts every day.
Ms. Woodbury: Did you get to know people at the courts?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: Yes, I did. I met people at the new case desk in the District Court.
Superior Court was a different experience because they were so big. Case
information was handed to you through a glass window and you had to scramble
to find a seat to record the information. I didn’t really develop as much rapport
with them as I did with the people at the Federal Court. The Federal Court had a
much more civilized environment. I hate to say that but…
Ms. Woodbury: The Federal Court?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: Yes. Sometimes when I went to the Superior Court I couldn’t find a place
to sit down and write, I would be writing balancing on the window sills. It was a
very busy court and it had a lot more traffic going through it than the Federal
Court. The two courts were like night and day. But I enjoyed the work and the
opportunity to learn more about how the local and federal courts worked. It’s
funny when I was at the Law Reporter it was owned General Millard Lewis and
the managing editor was Colonel Twaddell, they were both retired military.
Ms. Woodbury: Military?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: Yes. They had very successful military careers but seemed out of place
managing the Law Reporter. My first day on the job I was trained by the woman
who had been in that position, she was moving out of the area. She took me
down to Judiciary Square and introduced me to people at the court and then she
stayed with me for a two week period. We would usually get back to the office
around 2:00 or 2:30 and then send the notes back to be type-set. Then we would
proof read it and that would take the rest of the day. After she left, I was on my
own. I would finish right around lunch time. The General and Colonel told me if
I finished around lunch time to go ahead and get something to eat and come back
after lunch. The first time I came back right after lunch they said “Are you sure
you’re going to all the places and getting all the information?” When I said yes,
they couldn’t understand what was going on. They said, “You’re back an hour
and half ahead of when Lindsay used to come back.” So after two weeks of
coming back earlier than Lindsay with all the correct information, General Lewis
called me in to his office and said, “Hey we just figured out what has been
happening. Lindsay was taking her time and going shopping on our time.”
I didn’t know what Lindsay had been doing, all I knew was when I
finished the job I had been given and had eaten my lunch, it was time to go back
to the office and do the work they had there for me. They were so impressed that
I was back earlier and that I could do more for them. They were happy I could do
more to help them and embarrassed a bit that they had no idea how long the work
Ms. Woodbury: I was going to ask if they expanded your job to fill your day.
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: Yes. They published petitions for people who wanted to change their
name. These were big money makers for the paper and they wanted to see if they
could increase the number of names they were receiving as recently they had
noticed that more petitions were going to a rival paper. When I went to the office
in Superior Court where petitions were handled, I asked the clerk if there had
been any changes recently in their procedures. The clerk said there had not been
any changes. I got the information from the box and sat down to make my notes.
Another clerk came out from the back and said the first clerk I had been speaking
with was directing petitioners to the rival paper. She told me to write down the
number of petitions the rival paper was getting and compare them with our
numbers and have someone from our office call the clerk’s manager. I took that
information back to the Law Reporter and the General called the clerk’s manager
that afternoon. The issue was resolved, the clerk was let go and the numbers
increased for the Law Reporter. I helped the woman who did the typesetting get
all the information from the petitions that were often handwritten. Because I was
able to help the typesetter, she was able to leave earlier and not put in so much
overtime. The Law Reporter started getting more revenue from the petitions, the
typesetter got to go home earlier and the paper cut down on overtime expenses.
My reward for my help was a chocolate Tootsie Roll pop! My expectations for
any monetary reward were short lived. But, I still remember how good I felt
when the General was giving me the lollipop and telling me what a great job I
was doing for them. This so resonated with me that it was a constant reminder in
my later days as a supervisor and manager for the courts that recognition of a job
well done can be more important than any monetary reward.
The staff of the Law Reporter was very small so that everyone relied on
one another to get the job done. They had an office on 16th Street and I took the
bus back and forth from the courts and then I rode the subway the first day it
opened because it opened in March of ’77 and I was still working there.
Ms. Woodbury: Beautiful new subway?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: Yes it was and so much quicker than the bus. But sometimes not as much
fun, there were always characters on the bus. But as a result of going to the
courthouse I met the new case clerk who at the time was Miss Evelyn and her
assistant was Greg Hughes, who is now the Chief Deputy at the court. They
would say to me…. “You should apply for a job down here, you could do this
work.” I decided finally that I had to disclose that I could not type. The jobs
were very clerical.
Ms. Woodbury: Did you say: “well I can’t type”?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: Yes, I said I can’t type. I can do other things but I can’t type. Then one
day they said to me there’s an opening in our jury office and all you have to type
are lists. They said you really should think about it. So, I did. I applied for the
job and I took the typing test and I think I typed 26wpm with 13 errors.
Ms. Woodbury: Was the typing test part of the application?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: Yes. And so I thought “Well, that’s history.” I took it on a manual
typewriter. I forgot to hit the return bar. I clearly did not have my best foot
forward there. I remember leaving thinking there’s no way I’m going to get this
job and then thinking to myself… “Well, maybe you need to take a typing class
because this is going to continue to be a problem.”
Nancy Mayer-Whittington Oral History