Back in 1954, when he was 21, Lee Griffith enlisted in the Air Force. Now, after 20 years in the military and another 40 working for the federal government, Griffith at last is retiring from a lifetime of service. The final day of 2014 marks the end of his 60-year career.
“It’s a new chapter,” said Griffith, 81, who lives in North Sacramento. “It’s overdue. But I’ve always loved working.”
For the past four decades, Griffith has risen before dawn for his 5:30 a.m. shift at the former McClellan Air Force Base, where his civilian jobs have included security work and driving a bus. As McClellan’s military era ended and the base evolved into McClellan Park, Griffith’s work evolved, as well: Since 1997, he has worked as an assistant building manager for a Department of Defense microelectronics lab.
“He’s a very diligent, very responsible, good-natured man,” said Dean Eppley, the Defense Microelectronics Activity operations branch chief who has for most of the past decade been Griffith’s supervisor.
“And he’s in great shape. My parents are in their 80s, and I’m looking to move them into a retirement facility so they don’t have to maintain a household. Lee maintains our entire building, though I’ve modified his job so he doesn’t climb ladders.”
Griffith’s office honored him during a presentation the week before Christmas, awarding him a plaque and a flag that was flown over the Pentagon. His daughter – Emilia Griffith-Rogers, a 46-year-old registered nurse – was there for the presentation.
“Dad has definitely been a role model for me and someone I’ve always looked up to,” she said. “I think about the younger generation coming along. They don’t have any clue what my father’s been through. They don’t want to listen, and they don’t want to grasp it.”
He was born Levon Griffith at the rural Mississippi tuberculosis sanatorium where his parents worked as cooks. There weren’t many opportunities then for young African Americans: When Griffith briefly contemplated leaving the military after four years of service, he returned to Mississippi only to discover that jobs were hard to find and attitudes were just plain hard. So he re-enlisted and made the military his first career.
Like so many of his generation, he was raised on hard work and sacrifice. His first job, Griffith said, was mowing lawns when he was 8.
“Leaves would be on the ground, and I’d rake every last leaf,” he said. “My work ethic was doing the best I know how. I’ve always felt that way.”
Although his own formal education ended when he graduated from high school, he sent money home when he was a young serviceman to help put a younger brother through college. While stationed in Panama, he met the woman he would marry and spend his life with, Maria Martin. She died in 2011 at age 84.
Through it all, he worked. If he couldn’t sleep, he’d go to work at 4:30 or 5 a.m., making sure pots of coffee were ready for the employees who came to work at the regular time.
Now, he said, his early rising days are coming to a close. He’s considering finding volunteer work. When baseball season arrives, he has River Cats tickets. He likes to ride trains, so maybe he’ll take the train over the Sierra, he said.
“I do love working, and I don’t have hobbies,” Griffith said. “I’m not going to do much when I retire. I’ll go to the gym. And I’m going to sleep late.”
Call The Bee’s Anita Creamer, (916) 321-1136. Follow her on Twitter @AnitaCreamer.