Watching hundreds of people gather around his wife at the Philadelphia Museum of Art the other night, 69-year-old Gene Gladstone thought about all the evenings he and Kaki had poured some wine and talked about their days.

Gene, a lawyer, would take a minute or two to sum up his workday.

"The rest of the night, she'd entertain me with hers," he said.

And why wouldn't Kaki Gladstone have endless stories to tell, after 45 years working in volunteer services at the museum, the last 28 as head of a department that has 686 volunteers of one sort or another?

Or, as longtime Park House guide Susie Robinson of Haverford put it, "600 women who aren't afraid to talk, and a few men."

Not to mention a job that allowed you to hang a Cassatt on your office wall and spend your lunch hours staring at Monet's Waterloo Bridge or Cezanne's The Bathers?

"Let me tell you," Gladstone said before her retirement party, as she walked down the impressionist hallway that ends at the little round pool with The Bathers just beyond it, "it's a perk. Just to come up here at lunchtime, it's so beautiful and exciting."

A petite woman of 70 with a wide and constant smile, a gentle touch, a quick word of encouragement, Gladstone on this evening managed always to be giving others credit and elevating their sense of purpose and mission, even as they had gathered to celebrate her 45-year mission. (Museum security officer Nelson Hammond, posted at the west entrance, is "the welcome to the Philadelphia Museum of Art," she told him, adding approvingly, "Aren't you part of corporate now?" He reciprocated by calling her "one of the originals, one of the legends of this place.")

Gladstone, a graduate of Wilson College with a degree in art history, came to work at the museum as secretary to the weekday and weekend guides in 1964 - all sleeveless dresses and bouncy '60s hair - and never left until last week, still impeccably dressed, with short stylish hair, a black pantsuit, and tasteful, dangly earrings.

In those years, she turned the position of working with an offshoot of the Women's Committee into a full departmental supervisory position, overseeing weekday guides, weekend guides, Fairmount Park historic house guides, membership volunteers, departmental volunteers, and interns.

Gladstone says she never lost her enthusiasm for the museum - especially with continually changing exhibitions - or for her job. But she decided to retire in order to spend more time at the New York City apartment to which she and her husband travel nearly every weekend to enjoy opera and food. They have no children. Gene will work from home.

Of the institution she's leaving, she said, "It's a very warm and exciting place. Everybody who works here, volunteers or staff, is here because they love it. It's amazing, that sense of pride that everybody shares."

In her 41/2 decades working out of an office most museum visitors never see, Gladstone helped develop a volunteer program that is among the largest, most organized, and most rigorous in the country. Museum guides undergo two years of training and education and must commit to between 60 and 100 hours a year.

Gladstone's influence is felt by all of them. "She's someone who handles problems with such grace and dignity, and is very positive," said longtime guide Cindy Blank. "We called her our cheerleader. She's been a part of our lives every day we've been here as guides."

Gladstone has worked under seven museum directors. In 1976 she helped show Britain's Queen Elizabeth around (and, she noted, arranged for the installation of the special toilet with which Her Majesty traveled). City Councilwoman Marian Tasco, who worked with Gladstone when she first arrived at the museum, will introduce a proclamation in her honor this week.

Gladstone seems to have earned everyone's admiration as an unflappable diplomat and efficient administrator who helped make her volunteers feel valued - though more than a few, like Hazel Perch, 70, a retired training coordinator with a benefits company, are not shy about saying they do on occasion wonder if they shouldn't be paid. "Yes," Perch said when asked.

Originally, the Park House guides were paid a small sum, which rankled the museum guides. Eventually all guides were made volunteers, but there's still some rivalry: The Park House guides are quick to note that they also do the sculpture garden and many outreach programs since they are not tied to the museum itself.

Now, with cutbacks in the museum budget, these unpaid troops have become essential. "That's the beauty of the volunteers," said Gladstone. "They're passionate about it. They fill in the gaps. They step up to the plate."

New museum director Timothy Rub and education director Marla Shoemaker both noted that the museum's volunteer guides - who develop their own tours from the extensive training; no one is reading from a script - give the Philadelphia Museum of Art a distinct character.

Replacing Gladstone is Ann Guidera Matey, a former volunteer herself.

At Gladstone's retirement party Wednesday, so many people showed up that the slow-moving line to shake the guest of honor's hand and give her a hug stretched across the museum's restaurant.

The museum has never had a problem finding volunteers, Gladstone said. "We are very lucky. "We are an attractive source for people who want to volunteer. With the job market, we have people call and say 'I'll do anything, I just don't want to sit at home.' We place people as often as we can, but there's a big backlog."

With each one who leaned forward for a hug, Gladstone showed her trademark patience and calm. She teared up during her brief speech, clapping back at the volunteers as they applauded her, then composing herself to return to her place at the front of the still-lengthy line.

There was a gift, naturally, wrapped in black paper and brought out on an easel. A canvas. It caused a little buzz around the room: Hey, what does a beloved 45-year employee of the Philadelphia Museum of Art get as a parting gift? A Picasso? A spare Gorky from the current special exhibition? A scarf?

It turned out to be an Ellsworth Kelly print, a triangular green classic Kelly that originally had been created as part of a fund-raiser.

Its unveiling led to gasps around the room, and Gladstone seemed both stunned and touched.

She would, then, bring a piece of art home with her - all the more fitting since she will leave so much of herself at the museum. She said she would be back, in time, as a volunteer.

Contact staff writer Amy S. Rosenberg at 215-854-2681 or arosenberg@phillynews.com