- The Washington Times - Friday, January 17, 2003

Charles Patterson's job has its ups and downs, but the way he sees it there is no better way to make a living. Mr. Patterson, 59, operates an elevator in the Ring Building, a grand old office tower in downtown Washington. He has held the job for 38 years.

"It's a good company to work for. The people are nice. I enjoy it," Mr. Patterson says.

Dressed in a blue blazer, tie and shiny black shoes, he is a charming reminder of a bygone era.

"What floor, please?" he asks a first-time visitor who crosses the long marble lobby to get into his cab.

"Seven, please," the visitor responds.

With his hand firmly on the lever that operates the lift, Mr. Patterson declares, "Going up."

Elevator operators were once as common in office buildings as security guards are today. By the 1970s, automatic elevators had largely eliminated the need for operators.

But not at the Ring Building.

Gustave Ring built the 12-story tower at 1200 18th St. NW in 1947. He insisted on keeping his elevator operators, even as many neighboring buildings were switching to automatic elevators.

It is a tradition his daughter and grandchildren, who now own the building, have honored.

"The tenants love the personal touch of having elevator operators. They always know exactly what floor to take you to," says Walter W. Cook, the building's director of leasing and management.

"It's also a plus for security. If they see anyone suspicious, they either don't let them up, or they'll hang around that floor to make sure everything is OK," Mr. Cook says.

Mr. Patterson is one of seven operators at the Ring Building. He works weekdays from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and gets a lunch break and two 15 minute breaks a day.

His twinkling eyes are enough to lift any glum office worker's spirits. He is the first thing many people see when they enter the building in the morning, and the last thing they see on their way out in the afternoon.

He is not only the face of the Ring Building, he is also its heart and soul. He says he recognizes "99.5 percent" of the people who work in the building, although he concedes he doesn't know all their names.

He rarely has to ask someone what floor they work on when they step inside his cab.

"Mister Patterson is a prince, a true gentleman," says one woman who has worked in the building several years.

Traffic in the Ring Building was slow on a recent Wednesday at about 10 a.m. Mr. Patterson was one of four operators on duty.

A FedEx deliveryman steps into Mr. Patterson's cab. He takes the man to one of the upper floors.

"They keeping you busy?" Mr. Patterson asks.

"Oh yeah," the deliveryman responds.

"Good. You keep out of trouble that way."

Mr. Patterson is a master of polite chitchat. He says the short elevator rides it takes less than a minute to go from the lobby to the 12th floor don't give him enough time to carry on lengthy conversations.

The deliveryman is one of a handful of folks Mr. Patterson will give a ride to during next hour-and-a-half. Traffic will pick up at about 11:30 a.m., when the lunch rush begins, and then slow down again in the afternoon.

Mr. Patterson spends most of the day on his feet, although he occasionally rests on a stool next to his control panel.

He says his job is never boring.

When he isn't giving passengers a lift, he chats with the other operators. During slow times, they stay inside their elevators on the lobby level, peering out the doors to carry on conversations with one another.

"I love Mr. Patterson. He trained me," says Carolyn Porter, one of the other operators.

Mr. Patterson grew up in South Carolina. After graduating from high school in 1961, he came to the District to find work. He worked a series of odd jobs until he joined his older brother as an elevator operator at the Ring Building.

The brother only stayed about five or six years, but Mr. Patterson has made it his career.

The job hasn't changed much in the last 38 years, he says.

In the beginning, Mr. Patterson and the other operators wore elaborate uniforms that resembled the kind bellhops used to wear. The uniforms were seasonal: light blue in the summer, green during the colder months.

Over the years, Mr. Patterson has only gotten stuck in his elevator a handful of times, and never for more than a few minutes at a time.

His most memorable experience on the job occurred the day his first daughter was born. He says he rushed out of the building to join his spouse, Eula, whom he refers to as his "beautiful wife of 37 years."

The couple commute to work together every weekday morning from their home in Camp Springs. Mrs. Patterson has been a secretary at the National Science Foundation in Arlington for 29 years.

"I guess when we find a job we like, we stick with it," Mr. Patterson says.

They are also loyal churchgoers. Mr. Patterson has attended New Bethany Baptist Church in Northwest since 1975.

He enjoys reading in his spare time.

Mr. Patterson plans to retire in about five years. Ms. Porter, his co-worker, says it will be sad to see him go, but everyone knows the day is coming.

"The thing about the Ring Building is no one quits here. They retire," she says.

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