From her desk, Rita Watson has watched nearly a dozen superintendents of public instruction come and go, clothing styles drastically change, and typewriters go from a highly depended-on tool to museum artifacts.
Although a lot has changed during her 54 years working for the state of Wyoming, what hasn’t budged a bit is Watson's tireless dedication to her job and for the Department of Education, serving the people of Wyoming each day with a smile and a deep drive to help.
“I pinch myself every morning,” she said about her more than five decades at the DOE. “I’m just so blessed."
An executive assistant with the office, Watson has spent almost her entire tenure working in Wyoming state government with the Department of Education, where she is the longest tenured employee.
Although the state couldn’t officially confirm Watson is the longest employed staff member in the state because of privacy issues, it could confirm that the longest tenured employee for the state has worked for exactly 54 years, which Watson has.
Her dedication to the job is relentless, usually working from 5 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day as the spry 82-year-old keeps up or outworks colleagues decades younger. Watson never worked from home during the COVID-19 pandemic and said she can count the number of days she’s missed throughout her entire career on two hands, accruing about 4,000 hours of unused sick time.
“You cannot serve your customer from home,” she said. “I just wanted somebody to be in our agency so our work would continue to go. Somebody had to do it, so why not me?"
While many people her age would likely have retired at least a decade ago, retirement is the furthest thing from Watson’s mind. She jokes that she’ll likely be found dead at her desk.
“As long as I can get up every morning and get dressed and come to work, that’s what I plan to do,” she said.
Pouring her soul into her duties is not only work ethic for Watson, it’s a way of living, in many ways defining her identity. Perfection for Watson is not merely something to aspire to, it’s the expectation.
“Anything worth doing is worth doing well,” she said from her office at the Wyoming Capitol. “I want to be as close to perfect as I can get it."
Watson grew up in the 1940s Jim Crow era of North Carolina, a time when racism and segregation were deeply embedded into the local culture.
Discrimination was a constant throughout her upbringing, defining nearly every move Watson made as a young Black girl, from where she could get a drink of water to where she went to school. Where the street cement ended, her Black neighborhood began, as the paved and unpaved roads marked the physical lines between races.
“I was very angry, really, that I would be treated differently just because the color of our skin,” she said.
But Watson said she was well-behaved as a child, minding the social order her elders instructed her to respect.
She was one of the top students in her class at every segregated school she attended, taking pride in her studies. The already-remote chance she had of getting to attend college was quickly dashed after becoming pregnant at a very young age, an experience that forced Watson to grow up quickly.
“I was a child," she said with a tear running down her face.
She entered the workforce and then went on to become the first Black person to work at Woolworth’s Five and Dime store in Durham, North Carolina. Defying the expectations of her co-workers, Watson advanced from cleaning the pet section to becoming a cashier in the front of the store.
“I think everybody expected me to fail, but I was there every day on time,” Watson said proudly.
How She Got To Wyoming
Later, Watson continued to advance her career with a life insurance company, where she became a lightspeed typist. That skill would help her land a job with the Wyoming Department of Health’s Vital Records Services as a file clerk in 1969.
Around this time, Watson had moved to Wyoming with her two children and husband, an enlistee who had been transferred to the F.E. Warren Air Force base in Cheyenne.
When he showed her Cheyenne for the first time, Watson remarked that she wanted to see the downtown, to which he responded, “This is it.”
“You have got to be kidding me,” Watson said.
They were certain Cheyenne would only be home for a couple of years.
Within the DOE, Watson developed a deep a love for the job, a pull so great that it encouraged the couple to stay in Wyoming. Also motivating was the quality of education she felt her children were receiving and the freedom she felt living in the Cowboy State.
“I love it because I am me. I can be anything I want to be,” she said. “I know people here I never would’ve got to meet in Durham.”
Watson considers several former governors and current Gov. Mark Gordon friends.
Two years quickly turned to five, and around 1974, Watson received multiple offers to work for the Department of Education by then-Superintendent of Public Instruction Robert Schrader.
After rejecting his offers because of loyalty to the job she had, she eventually relented.
“He basically carried me up there,” she said.
Thanks to her work ethic, Watson quickly rose through the ranks and was eventually promoted to executive secretary under former Superintendent Lynn Simons.
In total, Watson has worked for 11 superintendents, photos of them lining the walls of her office.
Her aspiration for perfection directly ties to the work she has done for the superintendents, viewing their performances as a reflection of her own.
“Anytime, day or night, I was at their beck and call because I wanted them to look good, which made me feel good about what I do,” she said. “I just wanted to make them look good in their job and be the source of their help."
In some ways, working under an elected official is a rather unusual work arrangement as their time in office is always limited. Although Watson describes this as “bittersweet,” her loyalty to public service and the superintendents she worked under is bottomless.
“I loved them all while they were here,” she said.
As a child, Watson said her parents instilled in her the lesson that to succeed in society, she had to work twice as hard to be afforded the same level of success.
“We knew that we had to be twice as good and work twice as hard to get anywhere in life,” she said.
Although it was nothing like what she experienced in North Carolina growing up, Watson said she, her husband and especially her children also experienced racism during their early years in Wyoming.
“I can’t say I wasn’t discriminated against in Cheyenne because I was, but it wasn’t like it was in the South,” she said.
She founded the Love & Charity Club in Cheyenne, a group most known for organizing the local Martin Luther King Jr. Day march that has been held every year since 1982.
“I’ve always believed in what Dr. King said that anybody can be great because everybody can serve,” Watson said. “I think that’s in my DNA to serve, making life easier for other people and my staff.”
Watson said the event started as a way to put more attention on the city’s Black community and join former legislator Liz Byrd’s efforts to have Martin Luther King Day recognized as a state holiday in Wyoming, an effort that eventually passed nine years later.
Recognized And Revered
Current Superintendent of Public Instruction Megan Degenfelder describes Watson as not only an institution of her own in the Department of Education, but also Wyoming government as a whole.
“Her life of service to the state is remarkable and has spanned generations,” she said.
The two also have a familial connection as Degenfelder’s father worked with Watson when starting his career.
Watson is usually the first person people see when they walk into the Department of Education office in Cheyenne, greeting guests with warmth and a smile. Her presence is viewed as so integral to the department that the staff once placed a life-sized cardboard cutout of Watson by her desk while she was gone on vacation.
“I did not expect that,” she said.
Her goal is to leave every visitor with a positive memory of their time visiting the office and what they were able to accomplish there.
“As superintendent, it is critical that the first interaction a constituent has with our office is a positive welcoming one,” Degenfelder said. “That is exactly what Rita brings, and she remembers everyone once they've passed by her desk.”
Watson was recognized U.S. Sen. Cynthia Lummis when she was the State Treasurer and on her 40th work anniversary in 2009, former Gov. Dave Freudenthal designated Dec. 3 as “Rita Watson Day” in Wyoming.
On her 50th anniversary in 2019, a conference room was named for her in the education building, with a plaque hanging in her honor. Watson also was recently featured in the magazine Women in Wyoming.
“Who would’ve ever thought, me being a person who never went to college being recognized as a woman in Wyoming,” Watson said. “So many things have happened to me that would not have happened had I not been in Wyoming."
As the decades passed, so has the way students are taught in the classroom, and in some ways the subject matter they are taught.
A champion for equality throughout her life, Watson said she questions the LGBTQ and critical race theory movements sometimes for what she sees as an overemphasis of the differences among people.
“I think we should try to treat everyone as individuals and judge them on their character just like Dr. King said, rather than trying to find differences and then control those differences,” she said.
But Watson also stresses that she strives to be a role model for Black children in particular.
“I want them to know that they might get kicked down, they might fall and it might not be their fault that they are down, but it is their fault if you don’t get up and continue to move forward,” Watson said.
Wyoming’s school performance scores have dipped a bit during her time with the department, which she partially blames on parents putting less emphasis on their children’s education than in previous generations.
“They made sure that their children took more of an interest in school,” she said about how education used to be emphasized more in the home. “And now, I think we have gotten a little loose with what we expect our children to do in school.”
Although smartboards and whiteboards have largely replaced chalkboards, and virtual education is at an all-time high, Watson believes the basic purpose of education hasn't changed. She believes there needs to be a renewed emphasis for the teaching of basic curriculum during the school day, with extracurriculars left for after school.
She noted how children have more distractions than ever with their smart devices, social media and the latest trend of their favorite TikTok channels all clamoring for a share of their attention.
Technology will continue change and so might the way children are taught, but for as long as Watson is living, she wants to spend her time helping children become educated in Wyoming.
When Watson dies, she said she would like to be remembered as a quality human being who simply helped others.
“I wanted to serve and do God’s work,” she said. “He made it possible for me to do lots of things, and I want to be a good Christian servant."
Leo Wolfson can be reached at Leo@CowboyStateDaily.com.