Bennie Paris recalls 39 years at Seattle City Light

  • By David Wilma
  • Posted 12/19/2000
  • Essay 2893

Bennie Paris worked for City Light for 39 years, beginning as a clerk in September 1956 and (with about three years out to have children) retiring as Senior Finance Analyst in January 1998. This file contains her reminiscences, including memories of the days of discrimination against women, as well as the fun and family-like feeling of working for Seattle's publicly owned utility.

The McCarthy Era

I began my career with the City of Seattle in October of 1954 during the McCarthy era. During this time all employees were required to take a loyalty oath to let them know you weren't a Communist or were in any Communist clubs.

In September 1956, City Light called me and I went for an interview and got the job. I was a file clerk at that time in Revenue and Accounting. That is equivalent to an Office Aide today. From Clerk I, in order to get a promotion you have to take another exam. You don't have to do that today. I took the Clerk II exam and I passed and I didn't have to file anymore. I got a chance to work cut-ins and cut-outs [service connections and disconnections] for the customers. I just had a calculator. When I left, I had a computer on my desk. Things were moving pretty fast then. Jobs were plentiful so people were moving around. In order to work for the City, you had to be a city resident.

The Years of Discrimination

[In the 1950s] opportunities were there for the clerical staff, but I couldn't become a supervisor because I was a woman. They didn't have woman supervisors like accountants and things like that, and usually the supervisors were accountants. That just wasn't done in those days. [Before the 1970s] they kind of relented. A lot of the women used to be really upset because they were saying they have to train the supervisors, but that they couldn't do the work. They would come in and they wouldn't know anything so it was left to the people who were actually there. There were occasions where women scored high on the test, but didn't get the job.

There were many changes over the years I worked at City Light. There were eight Superintendents and several Acting Superintendents during this time. We went from doing our work by hand calculations and electric calculators to high-tech personal computers. My last 23 plus years at City Light were in the Budget Office.

I guess the most notable thing about working under the different Superintendents was reorganizations. We use to dread this because it was hard to document historical information. I guess the management styles and what was important at the time dictated the way we did business at the utility. Under the different superintendents we had Conservation, Rightsizing, PIP Creations and Abrogations, and interdepartmental transfers [terms used by superintendents for various reorganization plans]. Also, we saw programs like Appliance Repair ended. Reorganizations not only impacted City Light, but it impacted other city departments as well.

The Vickery Era

I have to say two or three superintendents are more memorable than others are. For instance,, Gordon Vickery. It was exciting working under Mr. Vickery. [Gordon Vickery was Seattle's Fire Chief and was appointed Superintendent of Seattle City Light by Mayor Wes Uhlman in 1972.] There was always something happening. You never knew what was going on with him. You were almost afraid to miss work for fear of missing something. You could always read about it in the newspapers, because he was always in the newspapers. But, I guess if you did miss work you could always read about it in the newspaper. Personally, I think Mr. Vickery was good for the utility.

One lady wanted to be a manager and it was held up in personnel. She decided to barter me and I was really upset because it was the first I'd heard that I was moving to personnel. She was going to transfer me in order to OK her job. I said, "Wow, slavery's dead. I think you're just trading me away." Someone told Mr. Vickery and he said, "Bennie can work anyplace in the department she wants." So, that was the end of that.

Opportunities for Employees

There are some things that remain constant. Employees were and are still given the opportunity to grow. This is done through continuing education in universities, community colleges, and in-house training. They paid the tuition. Actually, you paid the tuition and in order to be reimbursed, you had to pass the class. I took an electrical class, that was in-house. I took accounting classes at Seattle Community College. They put me in a program where I could work half-time and go to school half-time, but they expected you to do eight hours work for four hours. I did this for about a quarter, two quarters, then I decided to take night classes. This happened probably in the 1970s.

The EEO [Equal Employment Opportunities] Officer, Joan Williams, was trying different things out. A lot of people thought that it was something that should be done. They didn't think it was fair. Not the employees, but the management. She was pushing one way and other people were pushing the other way. She was able to do it. I think she had support from Mr. Vickery.

I also found that if an employee shows initiative, management gives them the opportunity to work on special projects. For instance, one year I was given the opportunity to chair the Finance Division United Way Program. This was a real learning experience for me.

After I became an accountant in 1974, I went to work in the budget office. It was really small. It was just the manager and two other people. It was a hectic job. In fact, my first two supervisors had heart attacks. One actually died. I stayed there until 1998.

The Speaker's Bureau

I was also given the opportunity to become a part of the Speakers Bureau. As part of the Speakers Bureau, we were given valuable training. This program was comprised of employees who went out into the community and schools to promote conservation and safety. Also, to impart goodwill. This not only helped us grow as employees, but it gave the community a chance to know a little more about City Light. It gave them the opportunity to form a more positive image of us.

We were given the opportunity to visit places that we would not ordinarily have gone. We visited the Hanford Nuclear plant and Boundary Dam. At the Skagit River Project, we got to stay overnight in the bunkhouse.

City Light instituted several other programs that were aimed at giving employees a chance to grow. In 1988, the Upward Mobility Program was started to create career opportunities for employees. The duration of the training in the selected areas was six months. This program enabled the employees to gain valuable hands-on experience in fields they were interested in. One of my co-workers got a chance to work with the gardening crew. She loved the work, but her current job paid more. Needless to say, she stayed in the Budget Office.

Awards and Recognition

Other programs were started to create self-esteem and to improve morale. Namely, the J.D. Ross Achievement Award and the Light, Power & Pride High Voltage Award. To receive the J.D. Ross Achievement Award, you have to save the utility a minimum of $2500 in the award year. Supervisors and managers nominate the J.D. Ross awardees. On the other hand, the Light, Power & Pride awardees were nominated by their peers. I received the Light, Power & Pride Award in 1985.

It Was Like Family

One of the things I regret is that we moved from the City Light Building on Third [Avenue] and Madison [Street, in downtown Seattle]. When I started, there were just two floors with a basement. We worked right through the additions. Sometimes you would come in, rain would come in through the ceiling, buckets catching the rainwater. In the CLB, I was able to see the different employees in the elevators, on the stairs and in the lunch room. It gave me a feeling of closeness. It was like a family. You felt more free. You could see everyone. You could talk to the different people without having to get up and go around or calling on the telephone. Because we didn't all have telephones. There wasn't any phone to call on. After the move, [to the Key Tower at 5th Avenue and Cherry Street], I felt isolated from my fellow employees.

City Light Employees Association

I have saved the best for last. That is the City Light Employees Association (CLEA). CLEA has always been the heart and soul of the utility. It enables employees to meet and socialize with other employees throughout the whole utility. It helped you put a face to the voice you've only heard on the telephone. I strongly believe that people that play together will be most likely to work better together.

Over the years, I have enjoyed the CLEA picnics, children's Christmas parties, pizza parties, and other activities. Others, I'm sure have enjoyed the many physical activities like bowling, softball, and basketball.

I remember the first Children's Christmas party I attended in 1956. It was a real extravaganza. A co-worker and I were Santa's helpers. I'll never forget the little red crepe paper costumes we wore. I guess when you are young you will do almost anything. They had magicians and fantastic presents for all the children. Everyone, young and old alike had a good time.

I also remember the Christmas parties they used to hold on Christmas Eve in the auditorium of the City Light Building. The Home Economists, who went out and gave demonstrations, would do all this baking. It was open to the public and even the City Council used to come down. On that day, we dressed in our best clothes and everyone was in a party mood. We only had to work for half a day. But I don't think much work was done in that half day. I was sorry to see the Home Economists leave because you used to be able to get all these recipes to try out. We couldn't get the food, but we could get the recipes to try out for ourselves.

I loved working for City Light. In fact, I used to tell people that I wouldn't die and go to heaven and leave City Light. I did leave. I'm now retired, but I still feel that I am a part of City Light. After all, over half of my life was spent there, 39 years. Most of my career was in Finance Division. I retired from City Light in January of 1998 as a Senior Finance Analyst.


David Wilma interview of Bennie Paris, December 15, 2000, Seattle, Washington [audiotape in possession of David Wilma]; Bennie Paris, "Memories Of Seattle City Light," typescript, undated (December 14, 2000), original in possession of David Wilma, Seattle, Washington.

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