Stillman retires as GAO chief scientist

The Dragon Lady who wielded her Mont Blanc black fountain pen over reports for 15 years
at the General Accounting Office will breathe fire no more—at least, not on the job.


Rona Stillman, chief scientist for computers and telecommunications in GAO’s
Accounting and Information Management Division, retired last month after 33 years of
federal service.


“Rona was one of the greatest senior executives that ever worked for the federal
government,” said Gene L. Dodaro, assistant comptroller general in her division.
“She is a woman of impeccable integrity and a friend of the taxpayer. Her high
standards for product gave GAO the ability to make a difference.”


Her colleagues gave Stillman the Dragon Lady moniker after she returned their reports
with more black ink than white space.


Stillman’s family, friends and colleagues in the private and public sectors
honored her at a luncheon last month at Fort McNair in Washington. Dodaro presented a
proclamation from GAO comptroller general David M. Walker recognizing her 15 years of
service.


The event to honor GAO’s editorial conscience on information technology reports
quickly turned into more of a roast than a luncheon.


“I wish I had a dollar for all her black ink comments on my 30 to 40
reports,” said Ron Beers, assistant director in the Consolidated Audit and Computer
Security Issues Group, as he stood before a podium addressing guests in the Officers’
Club.


Beers that afternoon had come prepared to playfully slay the Dragon Lady, wielding a
scabbard full of stories and anecdotes about his battles with Stillman over the years.


“She wrote on one of my reports, ‘Excellent report. Reads well. Well written.
Void of content,’ ” Beers said.


“On another one of my reports, she wrote, ‘I know there’s a message here
somewhere. I just have to find it. I read up to Page 25 and became exhausted. The report
needs some work,’ ” Beers said.


“She had a way of bringing a grown man to his knees,” he said.


Despite his scorched ego, Beers said he loved Rona dearly and admired her courage.
GAO’s auditors could not have anyone better on their side if they had to do battle
with an agency, he said.


“Her job was not to be everyone’s friend; her job was to be GAO’s
protectorate,” he said.


Entertaining guests between speeches, Karen Bell, a former GAO senior auditor who left
the agency in February to join the National Security Agency, teased Stillman for her love
of fine jewelry and expensive handbags, and her passion for tennis.


In one skit, Bell modeled a short tennis skirt, a huge diamond ring and a Coach
handbag.


“You must dress the part. You must accessorize. You must let them know you have a
good bag,” said Bell. The luncheon crowd, including the roastee, burst into laughter.


Stillman joined GAO as a chief scientist in 1984. She had the final say on all
editorial content of the agency’s reports on computers and telecommunications.


Her career also includes working in the Defense Communications Agency, now the Defense
Information Systems Agency, and the National Bureau of Standards, now the National
Institute of Standards and Technology.


Stillman got her start in government in the Air Force at the Air Development Center in
Rome, N.Y. She earned her doctorate in computer science from Syracuse University. She also
holds master’s and bachelor’s degrees in physics from Yeshiva University and the
City University of New York.


Stillman’s No. 1 legacy at GAO remains the 1995 report that harshly criticized the
IRS’ modernization plan. The report she helped draft forced the agency to rethink and
reshape how it would use computers to more effectively and efficiently process tax forms,
Dodaro said.


Stillman gracefully thanked everyone for her gifts, which included chocolate-covered
tennis and golf balls. Her husband, Neil Stillman, is an avid golfer. He retired last
month from his post as deputy assistant secretary for IRM at the Health and Human Services
Department.  


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