Thirty-one-and-a-half years ago, 24-year-old Mary Taylor opened the drawer of a government-issue desk in the office of a brand new U.S. senator from Utah and tossed her purse inside.

Two weeks ago she took the purse out and retired.

Who knew it would have lasted so long — or that the senator would outlast her?

"I'm still having a hard time believing it's over," says Mary, who was the last staff member still standing from the day Orrin Hatch, Utah's perennial senator, first took office in 1977.

Hatch was 42 years old and embarking on his first term when he hired Mary. Now he's 74 and a third of the way into his sixth term as he sees her out the door.

Hatch didn't want Mary, who just turned 55, to leave, and Mary didn't really want to leave, either. But once she realized she had maxed out her retirement and could collect as much from her federal government pension as she could from her federal government paycheck, she was out the door.

"I realized I was basically working for free," she says.

As great as the job was, it wasn't that great.

Now, still young and vibrant, she can pursue the college degree she passed on when she first heard the siren song of the Potomac, moved to Washington, D.C., and took a job as a secretary with the CIA just four days after her 1970 graduation from Salt Lake's South High School.

After three years with the CIA she moved back to Salt Lake and worked as a legal secretary until Hatch's unexpected win over incumbent Ted Moss in 1976.

Lured again by D.C., Mary not only applied for a position with Hatch but also with congressman Dan Marriott.

Marriott, whose congressional tenure would last eight years, offered a higher position and more pay. But Mary took Hatch's offer on a hunch it might be longer-term.

"That kinda worked out," she understates.

She saw the senator through five campaigns, five Senate office building changes and five presidents. When she began they were using Dictaphones, typewriters and a fax machine the size of a jet ski. When she left she could have smuggled out the cell phone and laptop that replaced all of the above in her makeup bag.

In spite of the improved technology, "you always worked as hard," she said. "You could just do more work."

Mary spent her first 15 years in Washington and then switched to Hatch's Salt Lake office for the last 16-plus years. She proved indispensable at both places, a veritable fixture — until her retirement package gave her an offer she couldn't refuse.

That left the senator with two options: One, hurry and push a bill through Congress that would deny Mary her benefits. Or, two, deliver a tribute on the Senate floor and wish her well.

Ever the astute politician, he chose the latter.

"Mary has been with me from the beginning," Hatch noted in his tribute that was read into the official Congressional Record on April 3. "She is a wonderful woman, dedicated public servant and loyal friend. I will miss her tremendously."

The government giveth, and the government taketh away.

Lee Benson's column runs Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Please send e-mail to [email protected] and faxes to 801-237-2527.