MOORE — In his tenure with the Social Security Administration in Oklahoma and western Arkansas, Dennis Purifoy has weathered turbulence and change and navigated tragedy and triumph.
He’ll step down from the agency Aug. 2 after 40 years.
“In every office where I’ve worked, the people have been unfailingly dedicated to serve the public well,” Purifoy said. “The employees I worked with over the years were public servants who were focused on providing good customer service.”
As a claims representative in Stillwater, Purifoy intended to work for the SSA for a couple of years before pursuing other opportunities. After 40 years, he is glad he stuck around.
“From Stillwater to Shawnee and then Hot Springs in Arkansas, I’ve enjoyed my job every step of the way,” Purifoy said. “I was the manager in the Clinton office, where I was introduced to my wife, before I went to OKC and was there during the bombing before coming here (Moore).”
Purifoy was inside the Oklahoma City SSA office, where 16 employees were killed, when the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building was bombed April 19, 1995.
“I wouldn’t call it a highlight, but, of course, it sticks in my memory,” Purifoy said, recalling the bombing. “That was a rough day, but,” he said, brightening, “we had the office open and serving people in Shepherd Mall, where it is today, in one month.”
Purifoy recounted his experience on that day to Oasis, the Social Security Administration’s in-house magazine.
“They (the survivors) were screaming for us to get them out,” he said. “I was calling out. Lorri McNiven returned my call, and I followed her voice and found her on top of some filing cabinets.”
That was not the last time Purifoy witnessed an emergency first-hand while at work. Four years later, he was conducting a pre-retirement class at the United Auto Workers Local 1999 union hall near the now-closed General Motors plant on Southeast 74th Street in Oklahoma City when it was destroyed by the May 8, 2003, tornado.
“There were about 30 of us, huddled in the central hallway. They (union officials) had been watching the storms and I had just started my talk when they said it was time to duck and cover,” he said. “That experience taught me that (emergency) drills really do work.”
The current Moore office at 200 NE 27th St. was only a slab when the May 3 tornado hit Moore in 1999 and was unaffected. The building opened later that year on time in September. Purifoy became the manager for the Moore office in 2001.
While Purifoy was not personally impacted by the 1999 and 2013 tornadoes the same way as the bombing and the 2003 storms, he said all disasters affect the people needing help from the SSA in a similar way.
“A lot of people need help when those things happen. Even if it’s just needing a replacement Social Security Card, but you have survivor benefits, disability,” he said. “We were at Westmoore High School after this last storm, there are lots of people effected.”
“I’ve learned more about trauma and PTSD than I ever wanted to know through it all,” he said, reflecting. “I didn’t want to learn it, but I learned it.”
“Technology has changed over the past 40 years,” Purifoy said, laughing at the obviousness of the statement. “I mean, when I started in Stillwater, we switched from manual typewriters to electric and we thought that was high-tech. We got our first fax machine in the early ’90s at the Oklahoma City office and now people can do most of their work online.”
Purifoy said the SSA now has a great deal of information on its website and people can take care of most things from home. He was quick to point out the office is happy to help people face-to-face, if that is what the customer prefers, but for those who like working online, they are expanding those capabilities every day.
“One thing we are still working on is cards. Internet security is always a concern so we still take care of all Social Security Cards in person,” he said.
When asked what he planned to do with his time in retirement, he gave a wry smile.
“I’m going to have a lot to do. I have jobs piling up at the house that I’m excited to start working on and I want to volunteer at our church,” he said. “My wife is retiring in November and we love to travel, so we plan to spend lots of time traveling. We have a daughter in Houston, so we’ll spend some time down there.”
His wish for the Social Security Administration is that it become solvent. He believes solving the problem would not be as difficult as politicians claim and the longer Congress waits to fill the funding gap, the more difficult it becomes.
“We knew the Social Security reforms signed by Reagan in ’83 were not going to be enough,” he said, “but if Congress would just sit down and make the cuts and funding changes we need, it could be fixed.”