Furlough Seals His Fate
By Carla Garnett
For years Roger Gilkeson had wished he could pursue his love of the arts full time. Only one thing stood in his way -- his full-time job as assistant chief of the National Library of Medicine's public information office. During last year's federal furlough, however, the 30-year NIH veteran got a taste of freedom that convinced him to put his time where his heart is. He retired on Sept. 27.
A 1966 English literature graduate of Oberlin College, Gilkeson began work at NLM in 1967 as a GS-2 temporary clerk-typist, intending to pursue a Ph.D. at Boston University. While awaiting the results of his federal entrance exam, he was assigned to the library's search section. Soon after, he was classified as a writer-editor and was interviewed and hired in what once was called the Office of Inquiries and Publications Management, where he would spend his entire professional career.
"I came to NLM thinking I was taking a short break in my education," he recalled, smiling. "Actually, I ended up staying for some 30 years."
While in the information office, Gilkeson handled publications duties that included seeing that the library's best known Index Medicus was printed every month, as well as writing for and producing various brochures and pamphlets about NLM's offerings.
"The publication program grew and grew as the computer system allowed us to publish more specific bibliographies and as the library's outreach to other libraries and physicians grew," he said.
In 1977, Gilkeson took over editorship of the National Library of Medicine News, the newsletter that informs thousands of medical libraries and other individuals involved in biomedical communications about NLM programs and staff. Editing the newsletter introduced him to all the other aspects of NLM -- including the Lister Hill Center (the library's research and development component), the Bibliographic Services Division (which manages its searching tools and databases), and the History of Medicine Division (which stores collectibles and prepares exhibits). In the last few years, he assumed several other duties such as playing host to NIH groups using the Lister Hill Center auditorium for scientific meetings and managing the Visitors Center where tours of NLM are given daily at 1 p.m. "Showing people around the library and introducing them to Grateful Med are probably the things I'll miss most," he remarked, describing how the computer age transformed the work at the library and, incidentally, helped him get over his attachment to his IBM Selectric typewriter, which is rapidly becoming obsolete.
Gilkeson said one of the highlights of his career was a special event he arranged in 1993 as a member of NIH's public affairs forum committee. Dr. Steve Allen, Jr., son of the famous comedian, came to NIH to give a presentation on the relationship of humor to health. The event generated attendance of more than 700, requiring an overflow room to accommodate the crowd. "That was probably my most satisfying project," he said, "because it involved a topic I'd always been interested in personally as well as professionally."
The son of a chicken farmer and a third grade teacher, Gilkeson, who'll turn 53 in October, grew up in the Fairfax County, Va., area. An accomplished amateur classical pianist who has recorded and distributed a tape, "From Roger, With Love," he also paints, writes and publishes stories for children, and occasionally entertains as a clown for his congregation at Dumbarton United Methodist Church in Washington, D.C. Aside from a summer stint as a clerk-typist for the Agency for International Development, Gilkeson's only job has been as an NIH'er at NLM.
"It took me about 2 years to decide to retire," he concluded, adding that it was hard to leave the comfort and security of a career he enjoyed. He intends to remain in the metro area and can be reached now via email at email@example.com. "The furlough really crystallized my decision. It was something I couldn't control, so I determined that I would use the time energetically, practicing piano, reading the books I'd never had time for and doing some creative writing. I think my whole career at NLM has been a continuing education that has prepared me for this time in my life."
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