WASHINGTON -- In an era when most people in this town have been in their jobs for about 20 minutes, it doesn't seem that far off when Becky Timmons jokes in an interview about having started her higher education lobbying career "in the Pleistocene era."
The occasion of the interview, after all, is the announcement late Tuesday that Timmons will retire from the American Council on Education this month after 40 years. ("Forty years -- that's completely ridiculous, isn't it?" she says.)
She spent many of those years as the lead federal lobbyist for the main association of colleges and universities, a job in which she encountered no shortage of critics attacking higher education, endless lines in Congressional hallways awaiting hearings, and snooty young Hill aides.
And while she can shoot a mean glare when she's unhappy, the prevailing image for just about anyone who worked with her all those years is of her throaty laugh -- yes, gallows humor sometimes, but most often humor of some sort. (Yes, some of it unprintable.)
"I don't know anybody who has had a career as fun as mine," Timmons says. (It's journalistic convention to call her by her last name, but it's still odd -- in the D.C. policy circles she has traveled for the last four decades, she is "Becky" in a "Cher" -- or "Miley" in today's lexicon -- kind of way. When you say her name, everybody knows who you mean.) "The government relations people on our campuses and the ones we're closest, in the other associations, are really fun, smart, committed people, and we have a good time even when we're in the foxhole."
It wouldn't have been so much fun "if I worked for the petrochemical association," Timmons says. "There's always something new and interesting going on on college campuses, and there aren't many days that are like any other. You've got a bunch of 18-year-olds to a bunch of 80-year-olds, administrators, faculty, doing research, playing athletics. It's never boring."
The fun has waned in recent years, Timmons acknowledges, as the corrosive environment in Washington has eroded what she describes as the "bipartisan commitment to doing good things on behalf of students in terms of educational opportunity and access" and the level of expertise among Congressional members and aides has dipped.
But while she won't miss the current atmosphere at all, that's not why she's choosing now to retire, Timmons says. "I'm just allowed to say, 40 years is enough."
Current and former colleagues are lamenting her departure.
Chris Simmons, associate vice president for federal relations at Duke University and a former ACE lobbyist, calls Timmons "an icon, if not the icon, for higher ed lobbying as we know it. I don't think there's anybody else who has the respect, the history, the depth of knowledge and the memory she has."
Timmons, he says, is a rare combination of policy wonk and political pro. "She knows the issues inside and out, and also how to work with people, so she could be brutally honest and extremely tough one moment, but then have a cup of coffee -- or more likely a glass of wine -- right afterwards." He was one of several people to describe her as a key mentor.
Asked for thoughts on Timmons, another longtime colleague, Sarah Flanagan of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, sent this note via email: "She is our glue, our mother hen, our humorist and our historian. She cares deeply about students and the root mission of higher education and the federal government's role in it.
"She had been doing this since the Pell Grant began and it is almost impossible to imagine higher education advocacy in Washington without her."