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Secretaries in the early 20th century needed three skills to be successful: shorthand, typing and coffee making.

"We would never go to work without stockings," said Margaret Frazier, executive secretary to the president and CEO of Siskin Hospital, Robert P. Main.

But things have changed. Technology has evolved, and their job description has evolved along with it.

"In the late '70s, there were some cultural changes," Frazier said.

After that, even the word 'secretary' began to fall out of use, in favor of the term "administrative professional." And along with the title, their responsibilities changed.

Nowadays, they're most often the ones really running things, their bosses say.

Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger celebrated Chattanooga-area administrative professionals on Wednesday by issuing a proclamation praising their loyalty and work ethic.

At a private meeting with several executive secretaries from some of Chattanooga's biggest employers, he called their work "underappreciated," saying that even he himself sometimes takes Arlene Hughes, his administrative assistant, for granted.

Administrative professionals are the gatekeepers, the advisers and the confidants, he said. They control access to the most powerful leaders in the world, telling them where to go and when.

It wasn't always that way.

"A lot of people used to say, I don't want to be 'just' a secretary," said Barbara Carter, who retired after 43 years as an administrative assistant and secretary at Alstom Power.

"It seemed like in the '70s, '80s and '90s we were just doing the basic things," Carter said.

But as time went on, those responsibilities expanded to include more than taking notes at meetings. She became indispensable, she said, doing everything from designing landscaping for Alstom's new site to organizing company outings.

"Forty-some-odd years ago, there would have been a male staff member who would have done that instead," she said.

Kimberly Terry, executive assistant to Emerson Russell at ERMC, said the modern administrative assistant has multiple, interlocking roles.

After years of working with Russell, Terry knows which visitors he does and doesn't want to see. She knows he will want to see some memos immediately, and wants others routed through the legal department first.

"I am the sounding board," Terry said. "Not only for him, but for others to get a feel of how they should approach something. They'll say, 'We've got this coming up, how should I go about it,' or 'I need to give it to Emerson, but what should I do first?'"

Another role administrative assistants have evolved into is that of office manager.

Renee Gibbs, Unum Group President and CEO Tom Watjen's executive assistant, said technology has radically altered the role of a personal secretary.

"I know when I started working at Unum, I was more of a support-type individual," Gibbs said. "Now there's more responsibility, but with that comes more of a reward, and a commitment and realization from the team that you're a valuable individual."

Gibbs and others compared the role of an administrative assistant to "more of a business partner than a stereotypical personal secretary."

Unum itself has emphasized the versatility of the role, she said, by showing employees videos of five company executives who were once administrative assistants.

"It can be a steppingstone, because you have the opportunity to be at the forefront, learning all the different products, and it can lead to a management-type position," Gibbs said. "I would say that your regular personal secretary pool is a thing of the past."

Not all who started as secretaries were there to witness the change.

Bobi Reed, administrative assistant for the College of Engineering & Computer Science at UTC, skipped a few years while she raised her children.

After pausing her career in the late '70s, she returned in 2000. The new job required her to learn Microsoft Office and desktop publishing software, so she took classes.

With the ability now to communicate instantly across a variety of media, administrative assistants like Reed who serve as somewhat of a social barometer at the office say that office life has sped up dramatically.

"In terms of people needing things from you, they need it yesterday instead of in the next five minutes like they used to," she said. "I think there's a tendency to be a little more impatient."

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