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NEWS | March 1, 2022

Women’s History Month Employee Spotlight: NSWC Philadelphia Honors Technical Director’s Executive Assistant

By Gary Ell

Over the course of a 42-year-career, a summer hire ascends to executive assistant, in a male-dominated industry. This achievement is well-earned, and at the start of Women’s History Month, Naval Surface Warfare Center, Philadelphia Division (NSWCPD) recognizes one of its female leaders: NSWCPD Executive Assistant for the Technical Director Karen McDonnell.

McDonnell is the executive assistant and administrative officer for the technical director of NSWCPD. She is the senior administrative authority, expert consultant, and advisor to the technical director, deputy technical director, and their staff. She is responsible for providing administrative management support in the areas of budget/financial administration, personnel/manpower administration, staff management advisory, analysis and planning services, and general administrative management support.

McDonnell has worked for NSWCPD for over four decades, starting her career in 1979 as a summer hire in the male-dominated “shop” and has been an administrative officer for 34 years.

A native to Philadelphia, McDonnell grew up in South Philly. She was in high school when both movies Rocky and Rocky II were filmed, which serves as a visual reference of South Philly for movie buffs.

“Rocky II was filmed in the neighborhood where I grew up. When he got married and bought a house the house they used was around the corner from my childhood home. We were often lurking on the set and watching things happen!! Some of the kids that were running with him through the streets of Philly were younger kids from my neighborhood,” McDonnell said.

But it wasn’t Rocky or Sylvester Stallone that inspired her.

“It was definitely my two sets of parents who motivated and inspired me. My biological parents who sacrificed to give us a wonderful life without us ever knowing or realizing that they struggled to do it. My second set of parents were the two guys that I started working for in the shop – Ken Bill and John Deeney. I was sixteen years old and their children were the same age as I -- and they were the same age as my parents. They took great strides to “protect me” but also toughened me up. In fact, they were probably harder on me than my own father,” McDonnell said.

McDonnell met and married her husband, Jim, while working at NSWCPD. He was a rigger in the Shop (now known as the Industrial Support Division) when they met. Together, they have raised a family in the South Jersey burbs.

When asked about Women’s History Month, she said, “Throughout history, people have sought out and fought for freedom and equality, especially women. People -- regardless of their affiliations need to be treated equally and provided the same opportunities – this is important to me. Equality is a real struggle and back then the barriers were just starting to be broken,” she said when asked about Women’s History month.

“I often think about the women who I knew during my career who ‘broke barriers’ in our workplace. When I started in 1979, the first three female apprentices for NAVSSES (Naval Ship Systems Engineering Station) had just started in the program earlier that year. These three women, Peggy (Stackhouse) Klodowsky, Kathy Plover and Kathy Blinebury, were working in the Shop, which was male-dominated, and attending the Shipyard apprentice school to learn a skilled trade,” she added.

McDonnell was very surprised and impressed that women could achieve success in blue collar careers. “They made me believe that I could do anything if I wanted to. It is women like them that paved the way for others who wanted to pursue a similar career path,” she said.

“When I started my career at the Navy Yard all those years ago, I was a teenager - a quiet and naive Catholic school girl who had no idea what was ahead of her! The men I worked with were rough and tough but treated me like a daughter. They would teach me that ‘there is no crying in baseball’ well before Tom Hanks ever said it in a movie,” McDonnell said.

She continued, “They taught me to be strong, to stand up for myself, and to never let someone see that they got to you.”

In the technical codes, women like Bernadette Eichenger and Pat Woody paved the way for many female engineers in the organization.

“From the outside looking in, I was impressed by how smart and strong these women were. They were certainly larger than life to me as I grew up in the organization and I believe they set an excellent example for the up and coming female engineers,” McDonnell said.

The Upward Mobility Program offered opportunities for pioneering women in the early 80s. In fact, McDonnell’s sister, Donna Lamaine, who also worked at the organization, was one of these women.

“She was one of the first women selected for a position in the Upward Mobility Program. She started her career as a secretary in the Captain’s Office in 1979 and was a quality assurance specialist and program manager when she retired in 2014. She is a success story for a program that was developed to help those who were in “dead ended” positions enter a field with a career ladder as a trainee. A number of women from the clerical fields did this – back in the day there weren’t many opportunities and this program afforded them, McDonnell said.

McDonnell is a recognized expert in administrative operations and management. In 2015, she was selected as the first administrative officer for the Cybersecure Machinery Control Systems and Networks Department. In 2016, she was selected as the first executive assistant for the NSWCPD technical director. She was responsible for establishing the administrative management processes, procedures and policies for both organizations.

McDonnell is a certified Navy Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) instructor for the supervisor and manager, timekeeper and time approver roles. She volunteered to be an instructor in 2011 and was responsible for teaching the courses associated with these roles until 2017. McDonnell was a recognized subject matter expert, routinely providing assistance to managers, supervisors, timekeepers, and time approvers throughout the organization.

When asked about equality, empowerment, and mentoring, McDonnell said, “Today, the world is very different than it was in 1979. I have watched the workplace change and grow for the better over the last 42 years. These changes are a result of those who chose to go first and in doing so gave the future workforce more opportunities to be whatever they wanted to be. It makes me very happy to see the number of young woman who have stepped into important positions within Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) job types across the organization over the years. They are making huge impacts, and it is not because they are women, but because they are intelligent, strong, and talented professionals.”

Today, NSWCPD boasts a significant increase in the number of women in leadership roles, including four out of seven department heads, four deputy department heads, the chief of staff position, six division heads, and 27 branch heads.

McDonnell continued on the topic of empowerment, “Entrusted with power and authority by my supervisors provided me the ability to do my job in the manner that I wanted to. This was very important to me throughout my career. I did not realize early on that my supervisors entrusting me with more responsibilities and authority was considered empowerment. I made decisions and established processes for the administrative work being performed in the organization. I provided direction and training to supervisors and other administrative personnel on these processes. Empowerment wasn’t one of the ‘buzz words’ back in the day; however, I was empowered and it built my confidence as my career progressed.”

“I think mentoring is vital for everyone. You need to have a ‘go to’ person that you can bounce things off of – to this day, I have a trusted group of people that I know I can go to for advice who will not steer me wrong,” McDonnell said. “I was mentored throughout my 42+ career without it ever being classified as mentoring. Looking back, those mentors and teachers who oversaw my development were indispensable at different stages of my career. I trusted them to help me, to provide sound advice and to be my friends. I attribute much of my success in life to those who helped me along the way.

McDonnell has been a mentor for people throughout her career.

“By nature I am a helper. I always want to help people so I have offered assistance and advice to those who needed it. If you ask me to be in your corner, I am there! Nothing gives me greater pleasure than to help someone with an issue or problem that they cannot resolve on their own,” she added.

When asked about who inspired her the most in her career, McDonnell said, “I was motivated, mentored, and inspired by many of the administrative professionals I worked with throughout my career. Many of them were not only my co-workers but my friends.”

She continued, “Going back to 1979, I remember the very first Administrative Officer (AO) for the command, Josephine Lopez. She was this beautiful woman with the most professional and lady-like demeanor who was a powerhouse. Everyone knew she ran the front office in those days and you did not want to cross Fina (her nickname). Josephine was more chief of staff than AO, and she had the respect of everyone who dealt with the front office. As a teenager, I was in awe of her!”

“When I became an administrative officer eight years later, the position was different than Josephine’s and relatively new to the organization. Anita Baron and Jenny Schoephlin worked hard to bring much needed and deserved recognition to the role Administrative Officers played in the organization,” McDonnell said. “They realized we were an important part of the management team before most of us did. They were the first to bring us together as a team and to ensure our voices were heard. They helped build the foundation and pave the way for future AOs.”

McDonnell added, “I have to mention my very good friend Donna D’Orazio. She is truly an inspiration to me and has motivated to be my best for 30 years. Donna has experienced many challenges in her life and has overcome them with grace and dignity. When the command made the decision to rebuild our management assistant workforce, Donna took the lead. She was involved in every panel, interview and selection. She poured her heart and soul into the selection process all while helping to manage a very large department. I am very impressed how she still remembers every person she interviewed and hired! I truly respect and admire Donna for all she has accomplished in her career and her life. I am proud to call her my friend!”

“The first person who made me feel like an important part of the organization was Pete Manceri, who served as my supervisor for six years and left a lasting impression upon my life. Pete was the first one to tell me that as an administrative officer, I was part of his management team,” said McDonnell. “This brilliant man respected my position, believed in me, asked for my opinions and allowed me the freedom to make administrative decisions for his department. Pete empowered me and made me recognize the importance of my job. He truly inspired me to believe in myself and my abilities.”

“Finally, I need to recognize the impact that both Mike Kistler and Tom Perotti had on me. Even though they both entered my life very late in my career, they inspired and motivated me to be better than I ever had been,” she said. “When I started working in the front office, the organization was going through some big changes. I was going to be working for the first NSWCPD technical director who was a senior SES (Senior Executive Service) from NAVSEA (Naval Sea Systems Command). Doubts entered my mind that I may not be up to the challenge of a front office position. It was the first time in a long time that I questioned my knowledge, skills and abilities. However, Mike and Tom treated me with great respect.”

“They listened to me when I spoke, sought out my opinion, and allowed me to make the position my own. They made me feel comfortable in my new role as well as my new surroundings, which I appreciated more than they probably ever knew,” she continued. “They helped me squash the doubts that had entered my mind, giving me the confidence to do the job I needed to do for the organization. Watching them give the organization 110% every day inspired me to work harder every day. I never wanted to disappoint them!”

McDonnell draws inspiration from Eleanor Roosevelt and shared her quote: “You can often change your circumstances by changing your attitude. You have to accept whatever comes, and the only important thing is that you meet it with the best you have to give.”

McDonnell explained that attitude is everything and the better your attitude, the better your circumstances.

“That is it – pure and simple. I have always looked on the bright side of life and try not to let things get me down,” she said. “When challenges arise, I like to vent – it might not be pretty but it helps! Find a way to get rid of the negative thoughts then adjust your attitude and move on. Accept whatever comes, one day at a time, one step at a time. Believe in yourself and give every task 100%. If things don’t go as planned, take it in stride and move forward. Focus on the positive!”