PHILADELPHIA - For years, Connie Kleinschmidt has been hearing the same question from friends:
"Are you still working?"
Kleinschmidt, 84 - she'll be 85 at the end of the month - doesn't know many people her age who are employed. And she's clearly the oldest clerk at Rite Aid in Upper Darby, where she chats up customers while ringing up their orders.
Oh, she tried the retirement thing once - and found it to be overrated. In 1998, she left Verizon (formerly the Bell Telephone Company) after 30 years. Her retirement lasted just nine months.
"It got old pretty quick," Kleinschmidt said. "I wanted to get back to work."
So Kleinschmidt, who lives in Aldan, took a full-time job in Folcroft with Eckerd Drugs, which later became Rite Aid. When the store closed last year, she transferred to the Garrett Road Rite Aid in Upper Darby, about three miles from her home. She drives her 2001 Toyota Celerio to and from the store.
"I can't believe she's still working," said her friend Patricia Henry, a former Bell Telephone coworker, who is also 84. "Are you kidding me? I admire her."
Sal Calabrese feels the same way.
He used to be a regular at Kleinschmidt's first Rite Aid location, in Folcroft, where Calabrese had a business.
"For about six or seven years, I would go there almost every day to talk to her, even if I didn't need anything to buy," he said. "It was great to interact with her. She knows the Phillies inside out and she was so easy to talk to, so engaging."
These days, he said, "When I go to Folcroft to work, I'm kind of lost without her," he said. "Rite Aid is lucky to have her as an employee. I cried when they closed. I love her."
Kleinschmidt said it's easy to be lovable when the customers are so nice to her. In fact, interaction with them is what keeps her going.
"When I worked for the phone company, I worked in directory assistance and sometimes customers were not nice," she recalled. "In 21 years of my current job, I can count probably no more than five nasty people. I greet them all by saying, 'Good morning. How are you?'" she said.
Kleinschmidt, whose husband, Paul, died three years go, used to work full-time at Rite Aid but now pulls an 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. shift, five days a week. She lives in Aldan, Delaware County, with daughter Connie Gilchrist, and Connie's son. She has three other adult children (she lost a fourth, a daughter who died at 48; and, long ago, an infant who lived only a day). She has 11 other grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren.
Oh, and a cat, Meow-Meow. "I have been told a key to living long is having a pet," she said.
"She's at the register all day long. It keeps her brain going," Gilchrist said of her mom. "She's tired when she gets home and sleeps a couple of hours."
Kleinschmidt said she rises at 5 a.m. each morning to get ready for work, which, compared to her old job, feels like sleeping in. While working for the phone company, she had a 4 a.m. wake-up call.
"When the sun goes down I need to be down," she said. "And when sun goes up I need to be up."
Kleinschmidt sometimes wonders aloud about when she should retire, said Gilchrist. "I keep saying, 'What will you do?'"
A better question might be, what will devoted customers like Calabrese do without her? Who will they look up to?
Kleinschmidt, who stands just 4-foot-6, waves off the remark.
"People have to look down to me," she laughed.
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