After 37 years doing 'real work,' local customs director retiring

A container ship docks at the Wando Terminal behind Customs and Border Protection Port Director Pam Zaresk. She is retiring after a 37-year career.

Customs and Border Protection Port Director Pam Zaresk began her federal career modestly: in a Capitol Hill antechamber, double-checking a list of how congressional committee members took their coffee.

"I literally wore white gloves to my first job interview," she remembers.

But in the 37 years that followed, she would work the docks as an inspector in Newark, N.J.; supervise the seizure and incineration of tons of drugs across the country; and oversee a world of change in Charleston.

Even after her retirement today, the petite blonde has one more mission — in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. There Zaresk, 55, will work for the State Department for a year advising other governments on how to help prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction.

Zaresk joined the former U.S. Customs Service after realizing that Capitol Hill, at the time, held few opportunities for young women. She became a personnel specialist and then a labor relations specialist for the agency in New York. Researching case law and advising on grievance resolution, she considered going to law school but then thought, "I need to do the real work."

So Zaresk took a $10,000 pay cut and became a dock inspector in Newark.

From there she landed in Miami during South Florida's "cocaine cowboys" era. She can tell stories: from the box filled with white powder she discovered on a plane while working alone one night to the grandmother who arrived in the country with 10 pounds of marijuana sewn into her purse.

And then there's the one about the woman who tried to smuggle beans inside her shirt. "We still don't know why she had to have the beans, and there wasn't anything illegal about it," Zaresk recalled.

After a series of positions in Florida, she wound up back in Washington. There she helped implement the first passenger X-rays in the country's major airports in the late '90s.

She wants all the people who grouse about the latex glove searches to know this: "I can tell you, as an officer, we don't like pat-downs either."

Zaresk also worked in the Customs Service's fines, penalties and forfeitures office and spent much of her time searching for incinerators large enough to burn huge quantities of drugs being seized at the time.

She often worked from 5:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. and flew to Orlando, Fla., on weekends to see her husband, a retired police sergeant. She promised him she would retire when she turned 50, but he died five months before her birthday.

Zaresk said she applied for the job in Charleston because, after her husband's death, she realized, "I'm not going to get a life if I'm in the Ronald Reagan building on 14th Street" in Washington.

As local port director, she said, she focused on outreach within the Charleston port community and left day-to-day business to the inspectors.

Much changed during Zaresk's five years here: The U.S. Customs Service became part of an umbrella agency, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, under the new Department of Homeland Security. Zaresk played a key role in implementing Project SeaHawk, the country's first counterterrorism port program to unify federal, state and local agencies. And her staff doubled from 49 inspectors to 100 officers today.

After her stint in Kuala Lumpur, Zaresk will return to Charleston.

Her replacement as port director has not been named.