In July 1957, Dwight D. Eisenhower was president of the United States, Ernie Banks and Nellie Fox were playing Chicago baseball, moviegoers were flocking to see Elvis Presley’s “Loving You” and Donna Matteson was starting her railroad career.
On July 15, 1957, to be exact, Matteson, then 19, walked into the Rock Island Railroad’s LaSalle Street Station to begin her first day as a secretary in the company’s accounting department.
“I was scared to death,” Matteson recalled. “They were all so formal. It was Mr. This or Ms. That. We never called anyone by their first names. I was 19 and I felt like I was 119 with all this Mr. and Ms. business.”
She no longer has to avoid using first names, the country has a new slate of players in politics, baseball and film, and the Rock Island Railroad now exists only as the name of a Metra line. But Matteson, now a schedule clerk for Metra, remains.
At 79, Matteson is celebrating her 60th work anniversary with no plans to retire. Of all employees currently working at the agency, Matteson is the longest serving Metra employee, having nearly 10 years more service than her closest peer.
“People ask me all the time why I don’t retire and I say, ‘What. Do you want my job?’” she joked. “As long as I can work, I’ll be here.”
Having such a long railroad career wasn’t always the plan. When she began at the Rock Island Railroad, Matteson told herself she would only stay for two months. She hoped to find “a glamour job,” as she calls it, on Michigan Avenue.
She came to the Rock Island at the urging of her mother. Her father, Leo Dannis, was a locomotive fireman and later an engineer and her mother, Emma, was a comptometer operator for the railroad. Her parents sold her on the stability and good wages the industry offered. The job would do for the time being, Matteson thought.
She earned $274 a month to carry out tasks such as dictating her boss’ correspondence. He was a demanding boss, she recalled, dictating to her 100 letters on her first day.
When the company eliminated all secretary positions, Matteson joined the typing pool, also known as the word processing center. She was promoted to assistant supervisor, then supervisor. The company slowly started to cut jobs until it went bankrupt in 1975. By then, the only person Matteson was supervising was herself.
“I hung on until 1983,” Matteson said. “When they closed the doors, I came over here.”
After the RTA purchased the Rock Island, Matteson was able to transfer her 25 years of seniority. She started at Metra as a batch clerk in the accounting department, then went to accounts payable, where she spent nine years as a clerk. She moved to the Payroll Department in 1993 and currently works as a schedule clerk.
Matteson planned to retire at 60. But the boredom that set in during a two-month period in 1997 she spent recovering from a medical procedure made her realize that she was not meant for retirement.
“My daughter works here at Metra, my son lives in California, I have no grandchildren and my husband’s gone,” she said. “So what am I going to do? Sit home and look at the four walls in the rocking chair? No.”
Much, if not nearly everything, has changed since Matteson’s first day in 1957. Her dedication and resilience are clear to her supervisors and co-workers.
“She came from an era where there was a standard of excellence and she carried that over with her,” said her supervisor, Director of Payroll Jackie Franklin. “She wants it done right and done right the first time.”
Among her accomplishments at Metra, Matteson helped create a manual that helps employees color code timecards to ensure employees are paid correctly. Her day-to-day job includes ensuring train and engineers on the Rock Island and SouthWest Service lines get paid accordingly. She’s known to have many of those employee’s ID numbers memorized.
“She’s sharp. She’s quick,” Franklin said, adding she believes Matteson’s mental acuity is one of the few things that hasn’t changed in the last 60 years. “I think I get today what they got yesterday.”