‘This is not like an ordinary place’

Barb Sweet
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After seven eras, longtime Government House staffer retires

Leona Harvey, who has been the personal secretary to seven different Lieutenant Governors, stands in Government House just days before her retirement.

In 1978, the public service was on strike and Leona Harvey wasn’t sure her interview for clerk typist at Government House would go ahead.

But the staff there wasn’t unionized and by September that year, Harvey — who had started in the Department of Tourism’s travel office at 19 — had a new job.

“I was pretty lucky,” said Harvey, who began work at Government House at age 23.

Her duties spanned seven lieutenant-governors, up to current Lt.-Gov. John Crosbie, appointed in  2008; Ed Roberts (appointed 2002); Dr. Max House (appointed 1997); Fred Russell (appointed 1991); James McGrath (appointed 1986); Dr. Anthony Paddon (appointed 1981); and Gordon Winter (appointed 1974).

After 32 years, she had moved up to the position of secretary to the lieutenant governor.

Now she has retired.

She loved her job, but wants to spend more time with her family, including 13-year-old daughter Lacey and her aging parents.

“My daughter can’t wait for me to be home with her,” said Harvey, whose husband Wayne works at sea on a rotational shift.

The hardest thing in the beginning for Harvey — who grew up in Riverhead, St. Mary’s Bay, far away from the pomp and circumstance of the Military Road home of the Queen’s representative in Newfoundland and Labrador —  was remembering to call the lieutenant-governor and his wife “Your Honour.”

It became second nature long ago.

Every time a new lieutenant-governor is appointed, they bring new family dynamics to the house. There have been other changes, too, like moving the office staff from a cramped old cloakroom to more spacious quarters upstairs.

Government House was also brought into the computer and Internet age during the time Harvey was on staff.

“We had what we considered the top-of-the-line correctible electric typewriters at that time and we weren’t sure if we wanted computers,” she recalled.

Cutbacks and reductions due to technology have whittled the household staff down to roughly 11 from 25.

Domestic staff no longer live in the main residence, though three smaller homes on the elegant grounds are offered to staff when they become available.

In early years, Harvey tried out court reporting on a few occasions but it wasn't for her, so when the opportunity came up to move up to the position of lieutenant-governor’s personal secretary — during Jim McGrath’s tenure — she knew it was where she wanted to be.

The pace at Government House is busy, said Harvey.

“With each lieutenant-governor, it became more and more hectic,” she said, adding each has interests of their own and organizations they support.

There was never a day’s end, she said, when she was able to clear off her desk.

But day-to-day in the grand stone house —with its ornate state rooms, towering ceilings and staircases, historic furnishings and artwork — has not been without its lighter moments.

Harvey remembered one occasion when Paddon, a well-known Labrador doctor, was serving as lieutenant-governor when she was headed to his office with documents.

“I was just getting ready to open the door to go in and he comes out and here he is dangling this mouse,” she said.

“He says, ‘What do you want me to do with this?’ I said flush it down the nearest toilet — I would. … He didn’t have a fear of it, whereas us, we’d jump up on a chair.”

The house, which replaced a earlier structure, was finished in 1831.

Before Harvey’s daughter was born, she would sometimes work overtime, as there was always some job — sending out Christmas cards or garden party invitations — that didn’t fit into the regular day.

Sometimes, at night, she would have a strange feeling in the house.

“When it got dark, I would get an uncomfortable feeling,” she said.

“I never ever did see anything, but as long as I closed the door I was OK. But if I left the door open I felt uncomfortable. I would hurry out when it was time to go. I never did see anybody, thank God.

“I know people here who had felt different things. One girl was working in the office late at night and she was making a copy on the photocopier. She felt somebody tapping her on the shoulder and she said, ‘Just a minute.’ And she looked around and there was nobody there.”

The annual garden parties were once an invitation-only event. People would appear in top hats and tails and full military dress, or cultural costumes.

Now the party draws less formal wear, but Harvey’s glad it’s open to the public.

She’s met her share of royalty, ambassadors and other dignitaries over the years — the staff lines up to greet prestigious visitors. Among them were Queen Elizabeth II and her husband, Prince Phillip, Prince Charles and the late Lady Diana, Prince Edward, Princess Anne and Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall.

And she visited Buckingham Palace to receive the Royal Victorian Order for serving the monarchy.

She was nominated for the award by Roberts, with the support of House and McGrath.

McGrath, a former longtime MP, said Harvey was a tower of strength when he arrived at Government House in 1986.

“She could get anything done,” he said. “She was fantastic. I depended on her quite a bit.”

McGrath said things were especially chaotic in his early days there as he was alerted that the wiring in the house was a fire hazard — he could see exposed wires and smoke — and he had to move out for a few months.

But he noted the low staff turnover reflects the fact that employees like Harvey were devoted. He said he took joy in supporting her nomination for the Royal Victorian Order.

Harvey said she’ll miss the people she worked with the most.

“It’s a small place, so everybody really gets to know each other. You get comfortably in your job,” she said.

“This is not like an ordinary place.”

In retirement, Harvey hopes to volunteer for the annual planting at Government House and tend to her three gardens at home, when she’s not keeping up with her teenage daughter’s busy life.

“I see too many instances of people who wait until they are 65 and they get sick,” she said.



Twitter: bsweetweets

Organizations: Department of Tourism, Max House, Duchess of Cornwall.And

Geographic location: Government House, Newfoundland and Labrador, Riverhead Military Road

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