97-Year-Old Doyenne Still Leads Hill Staffers

Posted January 7, 2009 at 3:48pm

With her Southern drawl and sassy demeanor, Frances Still is a lady to be noticed. The 97-year-old veteran House staffer loves an afternoon out with the girls and a healthy pour of chardonnay.

Still was a committee clerk at a time, starting in the 1940s, when the few women on Capitol Hill served as secretaries and volunteers. But Still never made a fuss about her position then, and she doesn’t now.

But she does fuss over the group of women she mentored for many years on Capitol Hill, who dutifully meet her for lunch every other month.

“Oh I like that red. You’d better hold onto that or I’ll steal it,” Still teased Marvadelle Zeeb, a former staffer on the House Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee, who chose a red sweater set for the group’s most recent luncheon at the Mount Vernon Country Club.

Still’s group of one-time protégées fuss over their mentor like a group of daughters. They laugh at the stories she tells and retells, recall their own favorite lessons learned and always give her a kiss and words of love before departing. She may have been their supervisor, but Still now serves as their trailblazing elder. And a charming one at that.

“Oh, she’s precious,” Barbara Wyman said under her breath as the group sat down for lunch at the country club, where Still is a member.

“When I joined, I asked where all the old ladies are who play bridge. That’s where I belong,” she quipped, sitting in a Christmas-themed room for a December luncheon with six of her former colleagues.

At this get-together, Still brought red carnation corsages for each of the women.

“Now I want each of you to put this on, and I don’t want to hear a thing about it,” she told the group, gesturing her hand to calm the oohs and ahs.

“You don’t say no to Frances,” Ann Mueller said as she pinned her flower on a red jacket, noting that Still always pays for lunch — and doesn’t want any fuss about that either.

A native of Richmond, Va., Still graduated from high school at 13, completed business college and a few years later moved to Washington, D.C., to work for her hometown Congressman, Thomas Burch. After he retired in 1946, she moved to the House Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee.

Still came to Washington at a very young age — though she won’t divulge just how young — and held several clerical jobs before becoming a committee clerk. She became one of the highest-paid female staffers on Capitol Hill because of her high-ranking post, and while the diminutive belle worked in a male-dominated work environment, she never talked about it.

“She was aware of the very, very few women in her position, but we never talked about it,” said Gwen Lockhart, Still’s counterpart as the minority chief clerk. “It was a good feeling to be there, and everyone just knew that she would get the job done.”

The other women agreed, noting that in the late 1960s and early 1970s they were simply focusing on their work in Congress. Most worked for the Democratic majority on the Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee, and all had run-ins with Still, who ruled with an iron fist in a velvet glove.

“We always looked at her as such a Southern lady,” said Barbara Wyman, a North Dakota native. “She was gentle, but she was strong and she had the Members on her side.”

“I was very aware of how competent she was, and I wanted to be that competent,” Lockhart added. “She was also very kind, and I realized how important that was. She was someone I looked up to. I still do.”

Like the young staffers she mentored, Still gained a certain amount of loyalty and respect from committee members through her charm. She walked them home under the guise of a dutiful staffer but also used the time to ask Members probing questions about committee business.

Still never married and moved to Alexandria’s Old Town in the 1960s. She still entertains at her home with plates of crackers and full glasses of chardonnay. She plays bridge and is an active volunteer with the Salvation Army Women’s Auxiliary, which she joined soon after retiring in 1977.

While she loves bridge and chardonnay, it seems Still’s favorite passion is entertaining her Capitol Hill friends with stories, which she tells with pauses and gestures that enhance the punch lines she hits with flair.

“My Representative wanted me to come work for him, and, foolishly, I did,” Still recalled of her first years on Capitol Hill. “He invited me to the Willard for lunch, which I thought was so he would give me a reference. And then he offered me a job, and what do you do? You can’t say no. So I went home and told my mother I was moving to Washington.”

Every luncheon ends with talks of the next get-together, hugs and well-wishes for Still. Many in the group, which encompasses a dozen or so former staffers, visit Still during the week, but it’s the doyenne who always gets the last word.