Marilyn Smith is busy and has been for decades.
Somewhere in all the years of meetings, press briefings, the daily 4:29 a.m. alarm and tackling issues that continue to spring up every third winter like groundhogs poking their heads out hoping for a new day, time stopped for about 48 hours.
It was Sept. 4, 2001.
“I was in San Antonio, Texas,” she remembers, thinking back over her career with the city of Albany as she prepared for her retirement on Tuesday. The boxes in her office aren’t quite full but the shelves and desks and drawers that hold what has seemed like every answer to every question for the last 21 years are much more so.
“It was the days surrounding the accident that killed one of our police officers, a state trooper and critically injured another on I-5. Time just stopped for everyone,” she said.
She sighed before reaching into the memory that holds more information about the city than the collection of staffers she said goodbye to on Tuesday. It’s one of the few pauses Smith offers over the course of 30 minutes reluctantly, but dutifully, given for an interview as she prepared to hang up her career as Albany’s management assistant and communications officer.
That Sept. 4 and the days following it, she said, were some of the few bad days on the job. It started with a 2 a.m. phone call to her hotel room about the crash and ended on the morning of Sept. 11 with a call from a reporter asking her what the city was doing about the terrorist attacks. The hours sandwiched between were clogged with funeral arrangements and crafting statements for the media.
“It was all-consuming,” she said. “We had to scramble and figure out what that meant to us in Albany, Oregon.”
Smith’s position doesn’t have a formal job description, but if it did, that would be it: Figure out what it means, is, does and looks like in Albany, Oregon.
She landed in the desk some 20 years ago while jumping from her career in journalism after a stint with the Albany Democrat-Herald and hoping for a soft landing. She threw her hat in the ring for a communications job with the local police department, and from there, a series of happenstances took over.
“I was not qualified, but I wanted a different job,” she said of the communications post.
Someone, she’s still not sure who, saw her application in the pile and redirected it — to the city manager’s office.
“They set up an interview panel, and I had no idea because every other job I had before that was from a desperate editor who needed someone yesterday,” Smith said. “I interviewed with nine people, went to my exercise class and when I got home, my husband said I got a call. I had gotten the job.”
Some days that means answering questions from the press, and others it means creating entire programs where none existed. In between, she fills the gaps. When something needs doing in City Hall, more often than not the challenge is met with the creed: “Let’s ask Marilyn.” Because Marilyn knows everything.
“I don’t know everything,” she counters, mounting an answer that explains why she does, in fact, know everything. “I know who to ask when I don’t know it. Part of that is just time. It’s time. I answered this question the other day and said you ask a lot of questions, take good notes and live a long time. That’s how you get to know.”
But as of last Thursday, Smith was packing away her notes. Pages and pages, enough to fill drawers of notebooks dating back to 1999 chronicling every phone call and issue she has encountered. And, she says, it’s amazing the things that come back around.
Parking, budget shortfalls and the one thing she’s disappointed to be leaving on the table — homelessness.
Last year, Smith helped create the city’s Solutions Taskforce aimed at bringing curbside health and human services to those experiencing homelessness. It capped a career spent working to address the issue because, like so many other things that landed on Smith’s desk, it landed there by falling through the cracks.
“It’s been a big part of my job for the last 14 years, and there’s a lot of work to be done,” she said.
Those tasks will now fall to one of the five people it will take to fill in those gaps Smith has been holding together.
City staff including Ann Catlin and Jorge Salinas will be stepping up in Smith’s absence, along with three others who will split the duties she’s accumulated over the years.
“The job,” Smith said, “will eventually become molded around the personality of the person who has it, the interest that person has and the expertise they have.”
Still, her constant presence in City Hall will be missed.
“What the heck are we going to do without Marilyn?” City Manager Peter Troedsson said, repeating the phrase that has circled the city as her retirement grew ever closer. “Well, there’s really no way we can replace Marilyn’s knowledge of the city, her awareness of the issues confronting the city and her ability to deal respectfully and politely with everyone, even the most challenging. Her ability to find solutions to almost every problem, her calm and level-headed approach to problem solving. But,” he added, “Marilyn has served selflessly with distinction for so many years, and now she deserved to spend some time with her husband doing the things that they really enjoy together.”
On June 24, Smith sat in on her last City Council meeting. It didn’t look like it had when she first started decades ago. COVID-19 has forced government meetings online, reducing personal interaction between board members and staffers to small boxes on a shared screen. It’s unusual for a council meeting to run more than two hours, but as the clock rounded to 11 p.m., the council was still in session and Smith was still a presence — her camera left on as she packed more of everything into boxes, occasionally stopping to watch the proceedings.
By the time the council meets again, Smith will no longer occupy her office. But what comes next is the one answer she doesn’t have.
“I will be shutting off my alarm and try to sleep until the sun comes up,” she said. “I need some time to figure out what’s next. We have plans to travel eventually. We’ll get to know the backwoods of Oregon a little better, but it’s completely open-ended. I may write. I just don’t know yet.”
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