SHE WORE A shiny black ribbon on the lapel of her red suit jacket, the only visible sign that Social Security Administration Commissioner Shirley Chater had recently left tragedy in Oklahoma City.
But when she talked, her immersion in the heartache was obvious.
Ms. Chater spoke at the White House Conference on Aging last week. She had spent nearly a week in Oklahoma City after the Murrah Federal Building was bombed. Miraculously, 38 of the 53 employees in that Social Security office escaped.
The stories of the eight others who weren't working April 19 are the kind that make you ponder about the nature of accidents and coincidence:
For an employee who was on maternity leave, that Tuesday would have been her first day back in the office if she had taken four weeks leave instead of six. One woman had been caught in traffic, expecting merely to be late to work. Another employee had checked in that morning but felt ill and left the building at 8:45 a.m.
I really thought Ms. Chater wouldn't want to go back over all the details and misery, especially with government officials' and the nation's recent preoccupation with the disaster. Moreover, in the midst of the political issues and astronomical problems embroiling the Social Security system, it wouldn't have been surprising if its head had insisted on sticking to such burning issues as Medicare, modernizing the agency's computer system or the trust fund's solvency.
Ms. Chater said she finds it therapeutic to talk about the tragedy, just as the families of victims apparently do.
"My purpose in going there was not just to look and see but also to offer whatever comfort I could," Ms. Chater said. "I felt I was representing all Social Security Administration employees. I suppose I met with about 30 of the 38 employees. I simply made myself available and if they wanted to come in, fine. Mostly I listened.
"They were eager to see each other and they were eager to tell their stories. I think the psychological pain of the 38 who escaped was very deep and powerful. The escapees will take time to heal."
Ms. Chater said the First Christian Church near the destroyed building set up a model emergency center for survivors and their families. It ensured communication and contact during the vigil that was so much longer for them than we distant spectators.
Gifts were among the relief donations that poured into the city. One room at the center bulged with playthings; it resembled a toy store, she recalled, where children could have anything they wanted. Someone in Texas sent four "Texas-size" rabbits weighing 20 to 25 pounds each.
"They were quite content just to be held and petted," Ms. Chater said. "I observed that just as many adults as children were cuddling them."
Perhaps even more than the image of a powerful federal executive, Ms. Chater fits the image of a university president, which she was (Texas Women's University) before she was sworn in as Social Security commissioner in October 1993.
She also made me think of the kind of women in communities all over the nation who have historically been counted to take charge when needed, but with care. They organized food and clothing drives after floods or fires. They raised as their own a dead sister's or neighbor's child and gave their beds to dying elderly parents and in-laws. Single-handedly, such women confronted regional school boards to get bus transportation for the rural teen-agers newly consolidated into the distant high school of a "city" district.
As commissioner, Ms. Chater considers the rest of the system's 65,000 employees -- those who picked up the Oklahoma City work, so beneficiaries would be only slightly inconvenienced by the tragedy, if at all, and other employees -- are more worried now about their safety. Ms. Chater said security has been increased at the system's buildings, particularly enforcement of procedures already in place.
Security badges must be worn. Visitors are escorted. Employees have been warned not to accept strange-looking packages. Potential additional security strategies are under discussion, the commissioner said.
In Oklahoma City, Social Security office survivors also talked with Ms. Chater about their jobs.
"Some wanted to go back to work," she said. ". . . Others were not ready.
"Our plan is to offer very flexible work schedules. Those who want to come back can.
"The one consistent theme was they didn't want to be in a multi-story building," she added, "and they didn't want to be in a federal building."
The temporary Social Security office, she said, is in a one-story building in a shopping mall.
Jean Haley is a columnist for the Kansas City Star.