Denise DeCook, Senior Director at Sterling CorporationI was recently out with some mom friends sharing family events and a few glasses of wine. We shared updates on our newly minted college graduates and stories of their first jobs. It wasn’t too long before the conversation turned from our kids to ourselves.

My first professional job was working for a Republican senator at the Michigan State Capitol in 1981.  Reagan had just been elected President, Bill Milliken was Governor, the Senate Republican Caucus held 14 of 38 seats, and Democrats had a lock on the State House. As a constituent relations specialist, I spent my days tucked away in the Senator’s office on a half floor behind the Senate Chambers answering phones, writing letters, and preparing tributes.

Fortunately, I was not required to be on the Senate floor during session. The rules and strict decorum of the Senate was intimidating and frightening to me. I was told not to walk in front of a speaker, or walk behind a speaker, not to walk down the center aisle, and not to speak unless spoken too. Breaking the rules would result in the Lieutenant Governor swinging his gavel to halt proceedings followed by a public chastising of the errant staffer who broke the sacred rules of the Senate Chambers.

The chance to overcome my fear of the Senate floor came when the Senator instructed me to immediately make a delivery to the Governor’s office. The fastest way to his office was through the Senate. I nervously headed to the floor while reciting the many rules in my head. When I opened the huge door, the Senate was busy with speeches, rushing staff and a Sergeant at Arms posted next to me. I quickly surveyed the floor and saw my path around the perimeter of the Chambers where there were no speakers. I mustered my courage, put my head down, and followed my route. I took the first exit off the Senate floor.

When I looked up I was surrounded by white porcelain. I was confused and then I heard the flush of a toilet. I froze. I was in the bathroom. The men’s bathroom. In 1981 there were no women senators and thus no women’s bathroom in the Chambers. I was mortified and wanted to disappear. My head was swimming and my pulse pounding. I had to make my escape before I was seen by the Senator in the bathroom.

I turned, took a deep breath, opened the door, and prayed for an unnoticed exit. I was greeted by three Senators standing in front of me with crossed arms and menacing gazes as the business of the Senate continued behind them. I imagined they would deliver every horrible form of repudiation from public shaming to calling for me to lose my job. I was convinced my career was over before it really got started.

Time stood still as it does when extraordinary or embarrassing events strike. Then Senators Kelly, DiNello, and Arthurhultz began applauding, beaming with smiles with one asking, “First day on the job?” They extended themselves with a handshake, introduction, and a gracious welcome to the Senate.
They escorted me to the proper exit from the Senate Chambers and I made my way to the Governor’s office. I remain forever grateful for the lifeline they gave me that day.

Years later I worked with Senators Arthurhultz, Kelly, and DiNello on legislation, redistricting, as well as helping reelect some of them amid very difficult political contests. The Michigan Senate is now comprised of 27 Republican senators – a net gain of 13 since 1981 – a supermajority which I have helped build over the last three decades. Today, there is a women’s bathroom and four women serve as state senators.

Over the years, I have shared my experience with interns, first time professionals, my mom friends, and now you. It is a wonderful reminder that new jobs, like new challenges, often present unexpected results. We all have embarrassing moments at work and in life. Gratefully, the ability to forge ahead, laugh at ourselves, and accept the helping hand of a new friend makes the first job experience bearable and memorable.

Denise DeCook is a senior director at Sterling Corporation, an Lambert company.