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Leo Winkler Closes Locker After 27 Years

By Rich McManus

Down on the B1 level of Bldg. 31's A wing, in a ragtag locker room once used by the NIH Police, there stands a rusted, gray metal locker emblazoned, like its mates, "Joggers Only." Except this one has something different: taped to the locker door is a dark Polaroid photo of a grinning gentleman bearing a gym bag. The subject of this modest memorial is Adolph Leo Winkler, an accounting technician in the Office of Financial Management who on the Friday before Labor Day pulled on a fresh set of running shoes and commenced the final noon-hour jog of his 27-year NIH career; it was also the last lace-up in 19 consecutive years of running out of the basement of Bldg. 31 every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and the capstone of 44 years of employment.

Leo Winkler gets ready for the last jog of his NIH career on Aug. 31. The locker to his right bears a dedicatory photo of him, taken by another NIH runner, Paul Coppola.

Men's locker rooms, for those not familiar, are the homeland of the terse acknowledgement. "Hey, how ya doin'?" is almost too garrulous and intimate an expression. But not for Leo. Among the small cadre of regular noontime runners, he was well known and warmly received for his fearless declarations, homespun wisdom, and for hosting within himself the sort of common-man dignity before which pomp must surrender its plumes. He talked to anyone, and he usually laughed. His laugh could be a bit jagged and editorial, underscoring the subject of his amusement rather pointedly.

Leo was reared in Allegany County, Md., where his dad was a coal miner. "At a very early age, I decided against that as a career," he said. Upon graduation from Valley High School in Lonaconing, Md., he enlisted in the Air Force, spending 3 years doing "mostly administrative work." After his hitch, he enrolled at Frostburg College in western Maryland, but had to drop out for financial reasons after only a semester. "There was no peacetime G.I. Bill," he laments.

Then commenced a series of tough years of relatively brief employment in a variety of corporate trenches, starting with the Hercules Powder Co.'s missile research facility in Pinto, W.Va. In 1965, he moved to Montgomery County where his brother was employed, and worked for companies that became BAE, Control Data, and Eaton Co. In 1966, he began an educational marathon of part-time enrollment at Montgomery College that would culminate in the accumulation of 120 credit hours ("two times more than I ever needed"), which preceded another 10 years of evening classes at the University of Maryland. He earned his bachelor's degree in health management services in December 1998.

At her resignation announcement as NIH director on Feb. 26, 1993, Dr. Bernadine Healy registers an expression demonstrating that Leo Winkler once again connected with a fellow NIH'er.

Leo came to NIH on July 6, 1974, as a voucher examiner in the OD travel office. "I came here because I recognized I didn't have any stability" in the private sector, he said. "I considered the job here recession-proof." He spent 7 years in that position, did a brief stint as a payroll liaison with DHHS, then transferred to commercial accounts in 1982, where he remained until retiring. "I spent my whole 27-year career on the same hallway on the B1 level of Bldg. 31," he noted.

At a retirement party attended by some 85 friends and colleagues recently, Leo regaled the audience with a 4-page speech highlighting the ups and downs of the years that have elapsed since he arrived here as a "wounded corporate warrior."

He decided to retire a year ago to take care of his ailing wife, Jean, but she has since recovered and now the couple must decide whether to stay in the county, where they live in a home Leo had built (and where he tends a vineyard and makes wine — "I call it marginal quality"), or return to western Maryland, where relatives and a cheaper cost of living beckon.

Regardless of where they settle, Leo will run; he is a one-man advertisement for the benefits of exercise. He began the habit in 1982. "It stemmed out of having a serious arthritis problem in my shoulder," he explained. "I had started swimming [as therapy] for 2 years and got tired of that, and thought that exercise would eliminate the arthritis. A secretary down the hall — Mary Young-Palsgrove (now in the Clinical Center) — got me to jog. So I began at noontime and I'm still at it."

Leo ran for years with a group of a half-dozen employees who cruised the campus perimeter, but people gradually dropped out, leaving only him to school whatever new generation of runners fate would provide in the basement of Bldg. 31. Rock Creek Park became his favorite running venue.

"I haven't had any problems for years with arthritis," he declares. "I had really been in pain."

He intends to maintain his running regimen in his neighborhood: "I have a 4-mile route pegged out."

He leaves NIH "without any regrets about anything — I feel good." As he said in his retirement speech, "My advice is to work hard, play a lot and don't think too much. Enjoy your life!...What would a man have accomplished had he gained the whole world and lost his soul?"

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