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Betty Varner Witnessed Rise of Women in Federal Service

South Pacific Division Public Affairs
Published March 9, 2011
In 1946 the Baby Boom began, the first bikini went on sale, "It's a Wonderful Life" ruled the box office, and 20-year-old Betty Varner began her federal career.

Today, with more than 62 years of federal service, she is the longest serving member of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. As a Navy wife and mother, her only break in service was the two years after her son was born. Today Varner is a Civil Works Program Manager. But she began her USACE career as a statistical clerk in San Francisco in August of 1959.

Varner witnessed the rise of women in USACE. She began as one of a handful of women--clerks and secretaries. Today women make up a third of the workforce and serve at the highest levels of leadership.

Varner works for Dr. Christine Altendorf, the Senior Executive Service Director of Programs. The 60-Year Length of Service Award hanging on her wall is signed by Colonel Janice Dombi, who made history as the first female Division Commander in USACE.

"Betty is a true pioneer who opened doors for women in the Corps," said Altendorf. "Her generation changed leadership's perception of women in the workplace. They showed men they were serious about their careers and opened opportunities for women to excel."

Varner said she personally witnessed the transformation during the 1970s when she served on special staff to the Division Commander preparing General Officers to testify before Congress. Varner remembers tough questions from her role model, Congresswoman Lindy Boggs, an outspoken champion of women in the federal work force.

"During the USACE budget testimony she would grill Division Commanders about the number of women working in the Corps," Varner said. "She wanted to know in detail what types of jobs women were working, and what grades they held. We would be gathering statistics to help the leadership answer. She was a mother with three children and the first woman elected to Congress from Louisiana. She understood the biggest obstacle career women faced was opportunity."

Varner's career began at the U.S. Navy Terminal Leave Disbursing Office in Great Lakes, IL processing claims for sailors leaving the service after the 2nd World War. IBM built the first large-scale electro-mechanical calculator for the Navy during the war, and Varner used adding machines and early computer punch cards to run tape, and process final checks and bonds. In those early days of automation, a good operator could turn out 1,500 punch cards daily. Today a handful of program managers pull detailed data for thousands of projects.

Varner says the biggest change in automation is the world's appetite for faster, better information with each new generation of computers and data systems. "It always starts with improved efficiency, then more is possible and people always want more, more, more."

Varner earned the respect of those around her throughout her career through hard work and patience working the infinite details of the Civil Works budget.

"Betty's dedication and experience, especially in the Operations and Maintenance Navigation Program, helps keep us from repeating past mistakes," said Cheree Petersen, SPD Chief of Civil Work Integration.

COL Bill Leady, Commander of the South Pacific Division, said Betty helps keep change in perspective.

"She's made the journey from punch cards to our totally wired world," he said. "When the pace of change seems crazy, Betty reminds us it also brings new opportunities, so jump on and enjoy the ride."

Varner believes the secret a good career is staying active and engaged. "I truly like what I do," she said. "I guess that's why I'm still here!"