Four days shy of retirement, Missoula County's Chief Administrative Officer Ann Mary Dussault is wearing shorts to the office and a smile that won't fade.
Don't ask her about the county's budget process because she'd rather talk about her upcoming trip to Alaska and riding her motorcycle. A 25-day retirement countdown is posted on her office door. Three retirement parties are scheduled in her honor, including a noon potluck Friday at the Missoula County Courthouse Annex.
The 62-year-old is finishing up things she calls "diddle-doo," like drafting a proposal to establish guidelines for appointing volunteers to county boards. This may sound complicated to Average Joe, but to a policy wonk like Dussault, it's a piece of cake.
The career politician is saying sayonara this week to Missoula County after having worked there for 30-some years, first as a county commissioner and most recently as the commissioners' chief adviser.
Only a five-year window when Dussault moved to Oregon separate the two chapters of her life.
Whether voting in the limelight or orchestrating from the shadows, when it comes to local public policy, Dussault has likely had a hand in it - some may even say a heavy hand.
Dussault started her political career toward the top of the totem pole and worked her way down, shattering some glass ceilings along the way.
She was first elected to the Montana House of Representatives in 1974 at age 28. By age 33, during her third term in the House, Dussault, a Democrat, served as the nation's first female House majority leader. Many thought she may aspire to be governor one day, so her decision to run for the Missoula County Commission took some by surprise.
At a Missoula Press Club luncheon on Thursday, Dussault said it was only when she discovered that staunch veteran Republican lawmaker R. Budd Gould, whom she considered a friend, had filed to run for commissioner that she threw her name in the hat.
It turned out to be a decision that would shape the rest of her political career.
On numerous occasions, Dussault has been described as a progressive liberal and a feminist.
During her first campaign for county commissioner, Dussault ran on a platform of major change, including looking at whether to sell or move the county fairgrounds. Some 30 years later, the county is still addressing the issue.
In 1985, Dussault served as one of three members of the nation's first all-female county commission. She served with longtime Republican commissioner Barbara Evans and moderate Democrat Janet Stevens. She served as a commissioner until 1994 when Michael Kennedy defeated her in the primary.
Dussault returned five years later to work for him, and the rest of the commissioners, as the chief administrative officer. What brought her back was a phone call from Evans.
The county was not a fun place to work then, Evans recalls. The commissioners couldn't see eye-to-eye, and they fired the previous chief administer. Evans said she wanted someone in there who could act as a "liaison" between the commissioners and the department heads.
"Missoula County was broken," Dussault said.
Having previously been a commissioner, Dussault knew all the players, understood their duties, the political pressures, and how things needed to operate. She could talk to the commissioners in ways that other staff maybe couldn't.
"They needed tough love sometimes," she said.
Critics, however, thought Dussault acted as a fourth commissioner at times, wielding authority outside of her realm.
Today, lounging in an office chair surrounded by empty shelves, Dussault admits that criticism may have some truth to it.
If something happened in county government, Dussault was the first to know. She'd never get mad at staff for telling her what was going on, only if they didn't. The strategy appeared successful - almost too successful. After a decade, in order to get work done, Dussault hung a sign outside her office door that read, "Stop. Do Not Disturb. No Kidding" - but no one ever really obeyed.
From Dussault's standpoint, the county today is functioning efficiently, communicating, and the staff seems happy to come to work.
So why is she retiring?
"I was tired of the day-to-day grind," Dussault said. "It wasn't as entertaining to me anymore. I accomplished what I was sent here to do."
Though Dussault is retiring from the public service sector, she's not finished serving the public.
She'd like to volunteer with Flagship, an after-school program, and work with animals and children with disabilities. She hopes to do some political and policy consulting, but the projects will be focused, few and select.
The chances of her running for office again are as likely as her returning to the convent, she said. (Dussault spent two and a half years in the Sisters of Charity Providence convent during her mid-20s, but left before taking her vows.)
"Been there, done that, got the T-shirt," said Dussault about running for office.
Campaigning would eat up time she'd rather spend riding her blue and green Kawasaki Ninja motorcycle.
What she'll miss most, other than her co-workers and colleagues, is not playing a part in helping shape the place where she lives and loves.
Pushing the envelope and testing the county's authority was a thrill, she said. An example is the Missoula County Development Park, an endeavor that has generated $4 million in land sales since its inception. Economic development was a radical idea for governments to be pursing then, she said.
Dussault also admits that she'll miss a few privileges that she's enjoyed for decades, like guaranteed free parking downtown, at the airport and the fair.
Which only goes to show that she is leaving with her sense of pride, accomplishment and humor intact.
Reporter Chelsi Moy can be reached at 523-5260 or at email@example.com