Author(s): Scott Sutherland. Published on October 31, 2014.

ANNA THOMPSON WAS 20 when she heard from a friend that an organization called NFPA might have a secretary job available at its offices on Batterymarch Street in downtown Boston. “She called me on a Wednesday and asked if I could come in for an interview on Friday,” Thompson said. “I started as a secretary on Monday. I barely knew what NFPA was.”

That was in 1965, when her name was Anna Covino and her job skill requirements included the mimeograph machine and the IBM Selectric typewriter. On September 30, three days after completing her 49th year at NFPA, Thompson retired as the longest-serving employee in association history.

Thompson spent her NFPA career organizing events like the annual conference—she retired as Senior Project Manager, Meetings and Conferences. She attended every annual meeting since 1972, and she likely met more NFPA members than anyone else, ever—she ballparks the number at 50,000. “I’ve basically grown up here, and I’ve been able to meet and help so many people from all over world,” she said. “It’s been a perfect fit.”

Thompson credits that fit to the Italian hospitality she learned from her mother, Helen, and the customer service she observed as a schoolgirl working in the grocery store run by her father, Ralph, in her hometown of Medford, a few minutes north of Boston. (“I started in checkout and graduated to the meat department,” she said. “I could bone a pork roast blindfolded.”) She enjoyed her NFPA work, but early on she couldn’t imagine it would be a career. In the 1970s, word came that NFPA had purchased property on a hilltop in Quincy, south of Boston, where it would build its new headquarters, slated for completion in nine years. “I thought there was no way I’d be here in nine years,” she recalled. “Well.”

By staying, she observed the evolution of what she described as a “conservative New England organization” into a progressive, international force for fire and life safety. She was also witness to the full range of technological innovations that drove the Information Age, and to the equally momentous changes that occurred as the result of women entering the workforce in unprecedented numbers. “I’m very fortunate I could be a part of that change,” she said.

Of her NFPA longevity, she claimed no desire to make it to 50 years. “What good would that do?” she asked. “Forty-nine is more interesting, anyway.” She wants to devote her retirement to friends and family, including Bill, her husband of 47 years. “I’m pretty consistent with these numbers,” she said.

Her parting observation: “In the 1980s there was a lot of discussion about women encountering the glass ceiling in the workplace, and this assumption that you’re supposed to just keep going up and up,” she said. “I remember seeing this article around then that said if you find the right rung on the ladder, there’s no problem with staying there. That always stuck with me. I found a rung I liked, and I stayed.”

Scott Sutherland is executive editor of NFPA Journal.