She was hungry and needed a job, so Barbara Gallagher agreed to teach workers in the central office of the Veterans Administration in Washington how to write letters. The year was 1969.
Now, almost 22 years later, the former high school teacher is one of only seven women among the 172 chief executives of VA hospitals across the nation.
Never in her "wildest dreams," says Gallagher, who heads the 184-bed Baltimore VA Medical Center on Loch Raven Boulevard, did she think she would end up in that elite group of female hospital administrators, making $100,000 a year.
Nor did she dream she would be the woman at the top of a bustling hospital where everything is in place for wartime casualties that are expected within two weeks after a major land assault gets under way in the Middle East.
Or that at the same time she would be preparing to assume the directorship of the new 324-bed Baltimore VA Hospital now rising in the heart of the city and due to open in the fall of 1992.
"Things have turned out very well for me," she said. "The VA has been good to me and I have been very good to the VA. I work hard. I'm really a workaholic. Work is my No. 1 priority."
In some ways, it has been harder for her as a woman to get to the top, she said.
"More is expected of you as a woman. You have to work harder and smarter, and there is always the competition," she said. "But, if you do your job well, people recognize that and then you rise to the top. I think women who don't do their jobs well, and expect to go to the top, are not facing reality.
"Men have to work hard, too. But the difference is, men give each other more of a break. They bond and they pave the way for other men to go to the top. Women don't do that."
The daughter of a woman who was born in Sicily, Gallagher grew up in Washington and was "expected to have bambinos," she said. She certainly was not expected to abandon a venerable profession, teaching, and go off into the world of business that left little time or energy for anything else.
"Well, I didn't get married and I didn't have bambinos," said Gallagher. "My career was the most important thing to me, and I got so involved in doing what I was doing that I never found the right person at the right time.
"You have to look to your own fulfillment, and, I think, there are a lot of women who are married who are not themselves. There are many women who have to learn who they are without the dependence of a man," she said.
"I've missed the companionship of a husband, but I've been able to grow and I know who I am and I feel very comfortable with that."
When Gallagher accepted her first VA job, she was flat broke and out of a job. She had decided she no longer wanted to be a teacher because "teaching was changing and I was evolving and becoming somebody different."
She was in her early 30s then, restless, easily bored and constantly looking for new challenges.
"I always wanted to do something better, I always had a goal," she said. "I thought teaching was a great altruistic profession, but when I stopped teaching I said, 'I want to do something else.' "
Gallagher had been with the VA only a short while -- by then counseling high school kids seeking federal careers -- when a male VA colleague pointed her in the direction of her first administrative job "because you have a lot of talent."
There was a training opening in Sepulveda, Calif., up in the San Fernando Valley.
"I was an East Coast girl, but I wanted to see what the VA had to offer," she said. "So, I got into my little Volkswagen bug and drove all the way across country by myself to a job I really knew little about. But, I thought: This is a real adventure, let's do this."
She was there for four months, then got a call to the Seattle VA Medical Center to become an administrative officer for research. She stayed seven years and was in charge of grants, principal investigators and a $4 million budget in the VA's research program.
"The associate chief of staff for research and I really built the program," she recalled. "He was young and I was young and we were both new and it was very challenging. But soon I was thinking: I've got this done, now what can I do?"
By then, she said, the VA had a career program for professional administrators. But in 1978 only two of the top administrators at the 172 VA hospitals were women.
Seven years later, she had become the director of the Perry Point VA Hospital in Cecil County, then a 700-bed, long-term care psychiatric facility. In 1989 she moved to the top post at the Baltimore VA Medical Center.
Referring to the hospital's first wartime mission, Gallagher said, "We've made the contacts we need in the community, and we have backup we might need if anything happens that we get more war casualties than we can handle.
"We will take people who are in our hospital now who can be transferred to our sister hospitals -- Fort Howard and Perry Point -- to make room for the patients we get."
Meanwhile, she has task forces that are reporting to her on all aspects of the new downtown VA hospital. The new facility is being built next to the University of Maryland Medical Center on South Greene Street and will be connected to it by a skywalk across West Baltimore Street.
Gallagher, who oversees a $50 million budget that will jump to about $70 million with the opening of the bigger VA Center, has the reputation of running a tight ship.
"I expect people to do their job. I expect people to be responsible," she said. "If we are getting money from the taxpayer to provide quality care, then we should do that. And, I pay a lot of attention to cost-containment."
Gallagher has, at times, been tempted to seek work in the private sector, where female chief executive officers are paid $250,000 a year or more.
"From time to time, I've thought of going for more money, but I believe in being a federal employee," she said. "We've got to have good people running hospitals like this. There are challenges every day, and I think the job is fun."