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OPA News Release: [04/25/2010]
Contact Name: Carl Fillichio
Phone Number: (202) 693-5060
Release Number: 10-0551-NAT

Statement by US Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis on death of Willard Wirtz

WASHINGTON — U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis today issued the following statement on the death of W. Willard Wirtz:

"Willard Wirtz liked to call me '25.' So I would call him '10.' The number suited him perfectly.

"There is a great story about the nation's 10th U.S. secretary of labor that has been passed down from labor secretary to labor secretary: During the Johnson Administration, Secretary Wirtz often visited school children around the country to talk about jobs and work. After one of his presentations, a young girl came up to him and said, 'I'm the labor secretary of the 4th grade.' 'That's wonderful,' Willard replied. 'What does the labor secretary of the 4th grade do?' 'Well,' she said, 'I clap the erasers, and wash the blackboard, and make sure we always have enough paper and crayons. And at the end of the week, I put all the mess away.' And then the girl asked, 'What do you do?' Willard replied, 'Pretty much the same thing.'

"I asked him about that story last year, when I hosted a reception for him to celebrate his autobiography, which had been recently published. We held the event in the department's labor law library, named after him and his wife, Jane. He thought back for just a few seconds, started to laugh, and admitted that the story was true. Then he whispered to me, 'I hope the job has gotten better.' At the reception, we gathered about two dozen employees who started their careers with him and were still working at the department. He was surprised to see so many still around but was even more excited about the number of young employees — economists, analysts, grants managers, attorneys, investigators — who turned out to hear him speak. 'To be a public servant... to be a Labor Department employee... it's still a marvelous way to make a living,' he remarked with great satisfaction in his voice.

"Willard Wirtz was the consummate negotiator and played a significant role in preventing and ending major labor strikes during the 1960s. He was a vocal advocate for collective bargaining. As President Johnson's 'general' in the War on Poverty, he initiated an array of programs to help at-risk youth, older workers and the hardcore unemployed. Long before the challenges and promise of workers with disabilities entered the public consciousness, both he and Jane were champions and advocates on their behalf.

"On both a personal and professional level, I owe him a debt of gratitude. One of his most important tasks during his tenure was implementing Labor Department antidiscrimination regulatory responsibilities under the Civil Rights Act of 1964. As a result of his work, almost exactly 40 years after he left office, a Latina and daughter of immigrants became the 25th U.S. secretary of labor. I extend my sincerest condolences to his family, especially his sons, Phillip and Richard, and his grandchildren.

"When we last spoke, he told me that we had the best job in a president's cabinet. He said that the health, safety, well-being and dignity of working people should always come first in my mind, that every problem had a solution and that there was no greater calling than working for workers. And then he said, 'Have a little fun, too.' I promised him that I would try."