Watch Retiree Stories

Doris Welch

Before I went to work for the Housing Authority I was a dental hygienist. That was 28 years ago. I took a job at the Authority as a typist “for a year,” I said, because I needed a break, and then I would go back to the medical profession. But I started liking the high heels and nice dresses— as a dental hygienist I wore a white uniform and white shoes every day. I stayed. I worked in Personnel (now called Human Resources).

After four years, I transferred to the executive floor of the Public Information Department. That was a turning point for me. I worked with some beautiful people—Val Coleman, Roy Metcalf, the director, and Tim Sullivan. They taught me a lot. I covered events and wrote stories for a journal that went to the residents. I had never worked in a public housing project—I only saw the buildings—and I wanted to get to know the residents, see what they were doing, hear their ideas. So I volunteered on Saturdays to train residents to do their own newsletters. Later it helped me, when I went out into the field.

One of the interviews for the journal, which Tim Sullivan did, was with Ann Sabatino, the first female assistant superintendent (later the first female superintendent). I got to talking to her and I asked her how she managed. She had a family with children. At the time, it was the furthest thing from my mind to be a “nontraditional” woman. I just admired her for what she had done.

After a few years I was promoted to senior clerk (now called office associate), and I went to the Construction Department. The construction staff taught me so many things. I went on inspections with them and they showed me the parts of a building, what contractors did.

The high heels and cute suits were gone by then. Working on construction sites, you don’t dress like that. You wear work shoes and jeans. It was preparing me for the nontraditional job I was to take.

Once I heard how much skilled trades workers made, I wanted the same thing. But I didn’t want to leave the Authority. Then I thought of Ann Sabatino.

The Housing Authority, with Local 237, was conducting heating plant classes. I checked them out . . . and I got my heating plant technician certificate. My first job was at the Chelsea-Elliott Houses. That was the first time I worked in a New York City housing project.

I experienced a combination of encouragement and “are you crazy!?” I got lots of encouragement from my father. It was my father who took me to buy my first pair of work shoes—the man in the store thought they were for him. It was my father who said, You can do it; anything you set your mind to, you can do.” He was a member of Local 32BJ, a maintenance worker. He encouraged me to be union. That’s partly why I do whatever I can for my local. Whenever anyone new came to work with him, he told them, You have to come to work everyday, you have to take pride in your work.

When I became a heating plant technician in 1983, there were about five women HPTs, if that many. The job was scary as hell—and that’s a quote—but fun. There were the males on the staff who didn’t think I’d be able to do the job. Then there were those who made life real easy, who taught me. People like my first superintendent, Mr. Harvey, who was so patient, and later Mr. Smith. One assistant super I’ll never forget was Gardner Days. I gave him an extremely difficult time because there were things I thought I could do better than he could. But he was far more experienced, more knowledgeable. He was able to teach me without discouraging me or making me feel like I didn’t know anything. I learned how to be a supervisor from that man.

In 1984, some friends and I started an organization in the Housing Authority called Non-Traditional Women of Today Association. It was more of a support organization at that point, because there were so few women coming up in the nontraditional fields. We didn’t want to be separate from the men, but we wanted time for ourselves. We looked at things differently than the men because we were women.

One of the women was a good friend, Pat Rutledge, the first female supervisor of caretakers and the second female assistant superintendent. Sheila White helped form it, even though at the time she was not in a nontraditional job—she was a secretary. Later, she went on to be an HPT, assistant superintendent, and superintendent. She retired recently.

In those early days we were working with men who were not prepared for us. Our goal was to let them know we were not there to be a work-wife, but to do the same work they were doing.

It was extremely difficult. It was a learning process for the females, and some of them did not make it. In addition to dealing with the men, they had to balance their 9-to-5s with children and family. All working women have this balancing to do, but HPTs, for example, had different hours, we did heavy work, dirty work. We needed an organization where we could talk about our aspirations and frustrations and share those lousy days—and those good days.

Our group became very active in the local, thanks to people like Carl Haynes and Maggie Feinstein. Maggie helped us get our organization started. So did Norris Jackson, the director of the Housing Division then.

Later, we met with Carl, then the vicepresident, about organizing a dinner dance. He showed that he cared; he made us feel like first class citizens—not like the authority. The Housing Authority wasn’t prepared for the growing number of nontraditional women. There were no locker rooms for us to change in, for example, and to this day we still wear the same uniforms as the males.

In 1987 I passed the assistant superintendent exam. When I found out that I passed I was so happy that I went out to the back of my house and burned my HPT pants. Then I found out that passing the test didn’t mean I had a new job the next day. I had to go to the storeroom and ask for a new uniform.

When I made assistant superintendent I was assigned to Douglass Houses in Harlem. I was the third female assistant superintendent. Douglass is one of the Housing Authority’s largest projects, with over 2,000 units. It was my first supervisory position. My job was to oversee the supervisor of caretakers, supervisor of grounds keepers, and the maintenance and heating plant staffs, to maintain standards for the residents. It wasn’t really stressful; it was different. I didn’t know what to do as a female supervisor supervising an all-male staff, and they didn’t know what to do with me. But it was fun. Douglass was like a small family. We were able to do a job and then enjoy each other after work. We encouraged the superintendent’s secretary, Shirley Fonseca, to take classes. I thought, if I can become an assistant superintendent, so can she. She went to HPT classes given by the union, and now she’s an assistant superintendent, on her way to becoming a superintendent.

I think the hardest part of my supervisory career was letting my male staff know that I was not there to hurt them, not there to do anything other than to get the job done to the best of my ability. Once they became comfortable with me we didn’t have any problems. There were one or two knuckleheads, but on the whole my staffs were good.

In 1990 I was transferred to the authority’s Staff Development Program. . . . While I was there, I was promoted to superintendent, as a provisional, making me the second female superintendent, after Ann Sabatino. Ann had retired, and there hadn’t been any others. [Pat Rutledge, the second female assistant superintendent, died before she could be promoted.] I was assigned to a small development, William Plaza, in Brooklyn. . . .

In 1995 I went to the Bronx as superintendent of another small development, Murphy Houses. . . . From there I was transferred to Castle Hill Houses. This one was very large, with 2,025 apartments spread over 50 acres. It was one of the toughest jobs I have ever, ever, ever tackled. But with the support of a supervisory staff above me, a difficult job was made very manageable.

Today, I look at the glass ceiling and see that things have gotten better, but not good enough. I have faith that the all-boys club will grow and it will become our club, like husband and wife, and we’ll all become a partnership.