One year ago, Nathaniel Liu and I decided to start a podcast, My Life’s Work, that delves into the careers of our DC neighbors and the decisions they made to get where they are today. We knew that behind each door in our neighborhood, there was a life story to be told–a story that we hoped could both serve as a guide to young people like us, facing our futures and inspire neighbors to take the time to get to know each other a little deeper.
So, it feels fitting that our sixth episode with Capitol Hill neighbor Martha Pope, an individual who transformed over the course of her career from an art teacher to an advisor in the Northern Ireland peace accords, reaffirms our belief in the power of life’s stories.
For some people, there are hints throughout their childhood of the adult they will become one day. For others, like Martha Pope, the direction they take is a total surprise. After graduating from the University of Connecticut with a minor in art and completing a masters in art education, Pope began her career in her home state of Connecticut teaching art to middle schoolers in the same school that she had attended.
She soon began to expand her impact, starting with a career switch necessitated by a move to DC for her husband’s job. “It was going to be very hard to be an art teacher,” she recalled, citing the District’s limited availability of art teaching jobs at the time. “So, I made the rounds on Capitol Hill.”
It seemed Capitol Hill was an easier field to get into than District education. In the eighties, Pope dove into government life as a receptionist to Senator Gary Hart (D-Colorado), answering his correspondence and working on fish and wildlife legislation.
Pope continued her work in public policy—working as a lobbyist for the National Wildlife Federation and then returning to the Hill to work for the Committee on Environment and Public Works. While serving on the committee, Pope met Senator George Mitchell (D-Maine) with whom she worked in different capacities for the rest of her career.
Pope quickly became an integral part of Senator Mitchell’s team. She began as his point person on issues related to fish and wildlife. Pope went on to play a number of roles in Mitchell’s office, including as legislative director, administrative assistant and chief of staff when Mitchell became majority leader. She eventually left his Senate office to take on a larger scale Senate role.
The United States Senate elects two officers to oversee the day-to-day logistics of the Senate. Pope held both positions. In 1991, she became the first female Sergeant at Arms and Doorkeeper of the Senate, and, three years later, she served as Secretary of the Senate, becoming the first person to hold both positions.
“The Sergeant at Arms of the Senate is really in charge of the non-legislative duties of the Senate. Of course, the Senate is like a little town,” Pope said. She had a budget of about $150 million at the time and as many as 2,000 employees.
It’s hard to imagine, but even after growing from small town art teacher to chief of staff to holding two important positions in the Senate, Pope hadn’t yet reached the climax of her career. This point came when her previous boss, former Senator Mitchell, asked her to join the US special envoy to Northern Ireland to facilitate peace efforts.
Pope served as Mitchell’s senior advisor for the Northern Ireland Peace Negotiations. She recalled the meeting space where tables were carefully arranged to avoid conflict between opposing factions. The US envoy met with all factions and slowly negotiated a treaty. Their work culminated in the Good Friday Agreement, and Pope returned to the US, three years later, in 1998.
Today, Martha has returned to her artistic roots and spends her time as a pastel artist. She has shifted her focus to service on a local scale, serving as a Board Member of the Capitol Hill Community Foundation.
“I was a public servant, and I’m very proud to say that.” Pope reflected. “I think it’s a wonderful thing to have spent my life doing.”
To hear Martha’s story in her own words, visit the My Life’s Work website or wherever you get your podcasts. Keep an eye out for the next episode of My Life’s Work—a conversation with Children’s Hospital chief of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, Dr. Justin Burton.
Sarah Cymrot is a 16-year-old from Capitol Hill who occasionally contributes to the Hill Rag. She is the co-host of My Life’s Work podcast and is completing her junior and senior years at George Washington University through the GW Early College Program. You can reach her at [email protected].