She answered a job ad in 1984 with 'no intention of staying' — but then she made history

Jennifer Gerson Uffalussy
Contributing Writer

In our current culture, millennials move from job to job in order to climb the ladder. The average time spent at a company is just two years. For baby boomers and other generations, this was not the norm. Loyalty and dedication to a single company or career drove, and still drives, many of their careers. AOL’s original series, Lifers, features these dedicated, loyal workers who have been in their jobs for years and years. Will they retire? Are they prepared to?

“I never saw myself as a pioneer, being the first of anything. Never dreamed of it,” Jackie Pettyjohn of Philadelphia says of her groundbreaking career as the first female train engineer on Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA).

Pettyjohn, who has a degree in English, has worked the nightshift at SEPTA for over 20 years, and has worked as a train engineer with the local public transportation agency for 32 years.

She came into the job in August 1984, after she saw and responded to an ad in the Philadelphia Inquirer. Within a matter of weeks, the job was hers, and her unexpected career as a game-changer had begun. Today, Pettyjohn is lovingly referred to by her peers as the “First Lady” of SEPTA, honoring her position as the agency’s first-ever female engineer.

Pettyjohn says that when she first started working for SEPTA, she had “no intention of staying,” because of the hours the job demanded. However, she ended up sticking around because she fell in love with the work itself.

Which isn’t to say that it’s always been easy.

Pettyjohn says she “felt pressure” being the first woman to hold her title within the agency.

“It felt like all eyes were on me,” she recalls.

She says it took a while to learn to be comfortable in her job, because the “old-timers” didn’t want to work with a woman, and would make comments to her, suggesting that she go and find another job.

Pettyjohn says it was the passengers who kept her going, and served as her “inspiration” to persevere. “They would give me high-fives and say, ‘It’s good to see a woman out here!’”

“What I admire the most about my mom is her work effort. She’s always there, and then always makes time for us,” Pettyjohn’s daughter, Jasmine, says.

“She has this can-do attitude,” adds Pettyjohn’s husband, Vic.

“I enjoy working with people. Sometimes I can be a little shy, but I like to see results,” Pettyjohn says. “I like to see people happy. I like to see an end product.”

One of Jackie’s colleague, Martin Stromm,  a SEPTA conductor, says he has learned a lot from her because she’s the most “caring and compassionate” person he knows.

“She loves her job, and she does it effortlessly,” he says.

Although she makes it look easy, the job has taught her a few things, too.

“Over the years, I’ve become more confident in myself. Over the years, I’ve become more comfortable in my position,” Pettyjohn says.

It’s no wonder that her supervisors at SEPTA describe her as “exceedingly professional” and as their personal “idol.”

Today, Jackie says she can’t imagine what her life would have been like had she not answered that job ad. One thing she says she does know is that if she hadn’t, she “wouldn’t be as happy” as she is today.

“I’ve enjoyed the ride. Definitely. No doubt. No regrets.”

Watch the touching work stories of more Lifers

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