Hartford — Edith Prague has reluctantly retired as the state's commissioner on aging, marking the end of a career of more than 30 years in state government in which she fought for the elderly as a legislator and commissioner under two governors.
Prague, 88, has not returned to work since suffering a ministroke in mid-February that forced her to spend three weeks in Windham Hospital. As feisty as ever, she said Tuesday that she is not happy about leaving her position – having officially stepped down as commissioner as of Sunday.
"I was very sick this past winter, and I cannot go back full time,'' Prague said Tuesday. "My only choice is to retire or drop dead. I have to retire. Believe me, I don't like it. That's my baby – that department. … Lots of people look forward to retirement, but I'm not one of them.''
She added: "My daughter and my doctor won't let me go back full time, but I certainly could do part-time work. … It took me a long time to get back on my feet, but I am now back on my feet.''
After the ministroke, Prague said she developed a urinary tract infection that became a bloodstream infection. Weakened, she had a hospital bed in her home and took 12 weeks off from work under federal law for medical leave. But she had rebounded enough to be working in her backyard Tuesday when she was reached on her cellphone.
"Here I am – out in my garden, doing what retired people do,'' Prague said. "I don't like it one single bit.''
She said she could not be a part-time commissioner in the newly re-created aging department that had been part of the Department of Social Services for two decades. As the oldest commissioner in Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's administration and one of the oldest in the country, Prague was earning $120,000 a year while fighting for senior citizens in much the same way that she did as a Democratic legislator.
"It really needs someone full time," Prague said of the commissioner's job. "I'd be cheating the department. … There are no part-time commissioner jobs. I'm really very sad about it – to tell you the truth.''
Prague said she had not spoken to Malloy, who nominated her for the job last year, but said that her daughter Joanne had been in contact with Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman.
"I haven't gotten a call from the governor, but the lieutenant governor is good enough for me,'' Prague said.
Malloy spokesman Andrew Doba said: "The governor was proud to appoint Edith as commissioner. She served with honor and compassion and brought tremendous energy to the job. Her passion for advocacy on behalf of Connecticut's seniors served this administration and the state immeasurably well.''
Following a minor stroke on Christmas Day 2011 and then a freak accident in which she broke her pelvis in three places after being attacked by a dog at a running track, Prague said she considered herself lucky to become the commissioner.
Prague had been supervising 31 employees and an annual budget of $25 million in a department that oversees senior citizen issues, including Medicare, Alzheimer's disease, dementia, home meal delivery, health insurance counseling and home care. Prague's agency was essentially an umbrella organization and a clearinghouse to advocate for the needs of senior citizens.
For years, Prague knew that she could be sitting on a beach, reading a book in retirement. But her fiery passion for helping the elderly prompted her to commute 46 miles round-trip daily to the commissioner's office in Hartford from her home on Columbia Lake in Columbia.
Prague's return as the state's commissioner on aging was an improbable odyssey.
Twenty years ago, in an epic and public clash with Gov. Lowell P. Weicker, Prague was fired as commissioner when she refused to cut her agency's budget and merge it into a larger department during a financial crisis. She and Weicker have not spoken since.
Prague then ran for Senate and won, serving for 18 years and quietly battling behind the scenes to re-establish the department. When it was time to name the first commissioner two decades after her firing, Prague volunteered her own name — and was chosen by Malloy. She concedes there is irony that she came full circle in a job that she held more than 20 years ago.
Born when Calvin Coolidge was president, Prague for years had the energy that helped her outlast many of her political rivals. She served for years in the Senate as part of an elderly troika that included Republican Sen. George "Doc" Gunther, who died in 2012 at age 92, and Sen. Biagio "Billy" Ciotto, now 84 and working for U.S. Rep. John B. Larson of East Hartford. Prague's late husband, Franklin, operated the largest independently owned retail chain of shoe stores in New England with more than 20 retail outlets at its peak.
Prague developed her passion for the elderly while growing up during the Depression in Methuen, Mass. She carries it on to this day.
"When I was a little kid, my mother — every Sunday — would get me dressed up and take me to the poor farm,'' Prague told The Courant last year. "We used to have poor farms in those days where the elderly used to live. She would go in with a big basket of good stuff — cakes and cookies and fruits — and the elderly people who lived there used to wait for her to come. It's like part of my life. It's like carrying on a tradition.''
Prague's mother was a huge figure in her life because her father died in an automobile accident at age 42 when Prague was 7.
"My mother never stopped,'' Prague said. "She kept going. I remember during the Depression, she would send me around the neighborhood to people with baskets of food. You don't forget that.''
Back on her feet Tuesday after months of recovery, Prague said, "I always say to the seniors – if you have your health, you have everything.''
In her retirement, Prague says she will visit senior centers in the state at least once a month and help the elderly figure out the complexities of their Medicare insurance.
Earlier this week, Prague said, she did something she never does. She was invited by former Sen. Mary Ann Handley, a fellow Democrat, to go to lunch.
"That's what retired people do – go to lunch,'' Prague said. "I have to learn this new way of life.''