Ted Kaufman - United States Senator for Delaware

Sen. Kaufman Recognizes Great Federal Employee, Thelma Stubbs Smith, former Personal Assistant to the Secretary of Defense

April 15, 2010

I rise once again to speak about one of our nation’s great federal employees. 

Mr. President, we’ve just returned to Washington, and I know we have a long and busy work period ahead in the Senate.  All of us will be relying on our staff – especially our schedulers and personal assistants – to keep us abreast of the latest vote schedules and meetings with constituents and colleagues. 

I cannot overstate how much those of us in positions of leadership depend on the hard work and expertise of those who keep us organized and ever-prepared.   This is not just true for me and my colleagues in the Senate but also for members of the House, Cabinet secretaries, agency heads, and other senior officials. 

That is why I have chosen to honor as this week’s great federal employee a woman whose long career did so much to help keep our nation safe during the Cold War. 

Thelma Stubbs Smith served for over forty years in the Defense Department as a personal assistant. 

She worked for seven consecutive Secretaries of Defense – both Republican and Democratic.  Before that, Thelma served under six assistant secretaries in the department. 

A native of Chicago, Thelma began her public service career during World War II, when she worked for the Selective Service System and the Office of Price Administration.  After the war, she worked as a secretary at the Veterans Administration before coming to Washington to work for the Pentagon’s Guided Missiles Committee. 

Thelma briefly served on the staff of Illinois Congressman Melvin Price in 1952, but she soon returned to the Pentagon. 

In the 1950’s and ‘60s, Thelma served as the personal assistant to six Assistant Secretaries of Defense, including William Bundy, John McNaughton, and Paul Nitze.  During this time, she began accompanying them on what would later total eighty-five trips overseas during her career.  As part of her duties during that period, she worked closely with Secretary Robert McNamara. 

One of the most harrowing moments in her life came on the thirteenth day of the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Thelma spent that evening personally burning important cables and notes in a small office at the Pentagon, as they were too sensitive to be shredded with other papers.  When she finally left after midnight, she was one of the few Americans who knew just how precarious the situation was, and she couldn’t say with certainty whether the Pentagon would be there the next morning. 

But, thankfully, that morning came. 

In 1969, when Melvin Laird was confirmed as Secretary of Defense, he asked Thelma to serve as his personal assistant.  She agreed to do so on a temporary basis. 

Mr. President, I know personally how a “temporary basis” can evolve into a life’s pursuit.  When Joe Biden asked me to help him set up his Senate office in 1972, I took a one-year leave of absence from my job with the DuPont Company, and I ended up staying with Joe Biden for twenty-two years. 

In that way, Thelma began her service as the personal assistant to every Secretary of Defense from Melvin Laird to Frank Carlucci. 

During the course of her service, Thelma visited every corner of the world.  She was awarded ten Meritorious Civilian Service Medals and the Secretary of Defense Medal for Distinguished Public Service, which is the highest medal a civilian employee of the Pentagon can earn. 

A paragon of professionalism and discretion, Thelma always answered those who urged her to write a book by saying that “It would be five hundred blank pages, and the title would be “My Lips are Sealed.”

All of us who serve in positions of leadership with enormous responsibility to the American people owe so much to great organizers and assistants like Thelma. 

I know firsthand how Thelma’s dedication to public service was passed on to her family.  Her daughter, Sheryl Rogers, and son-in-law, Geoff Rogers, have lived in my home state of Delaware for over twenty years, and both were federal employees as staffers here in the Senate. 

Sheryl used to work in the office of former Virginia Senator John Warner, and Geoff spent a few years in then-Senator Joe Biden’s office, back when I was Chief-of-Staff. 

Thelma, now retired, resides in Northern Virginia, not far from the Pentagon, where she served for so many years. 

I hope my colleagues will join me in honoring the great contribution Thelma Stubbs Smith has made to our nation as well as thanking all those who serve as personal assistants in the Defense Department and across our government. 

They are all truly great federal employees. 

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