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Tuesday, October 20, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Bagger hits the big 9-0, and everybody knows his name

Cheryl Orlet, left, and Lynne Brewer laugh as they pin a balloon to Melvin Klearman during his 90th birthday celebration. (Roberto Rodriguez / Tribune News Service)
Cheryl Orlet, left, and Lynne Brewer laugh as they pin a balloon to Melvin Klearman during his 90th birthday celebration. (Roberto Rodriguez / Tribune News Service)
By Nancy Cambria Tribune News Service

ST. LOUIS – In 2004, Melvin Klearman decided Schnucks Markets might be a good place to work.

He stopped into the one he knew best on Olive Boulevard near Mason Road in St. Louis. He’d had a long history with the store. He and his wife, Eleanor, shopped there through most of their marriage. He’d actually seen it built in the mid-1970s.

Schnucks liked Melvin that day in 2004. It was clear he had a knack with people. So he got a job bagging groceries.

He was 78.

Twelve years later he’s still working there, pulling a few six-hour shifts a week and sometimes a little extra to cover for co-workers on vacation. Most of the regular customers know Melvin by name.

The name tag helps. But the real connection comes down to his easy chit-chat over the topics like the weather and sports – or whatever comes to mind.

“I may not know all their names, but they know mine,” he said. “I like to keep up with them.”

Recently, his co-workers and customers gave him something else to talk about. They celebrated his 90th birthday during his regular shift at the grocery store.

Wearing a hat resembling a birthday cake with candles, Klearman stood just inside the front slider by the metal carts and gave away free slices of sheet cake on square paper plates with the number 90.

Klearman, who lost his wife four years ago, said a lazy retirement was never for him. He had spent several decades on his feet and on the road selling clothes in the women’s garment industry. After retiring and feeling a bit antsy, he was gently elbowed by Eleanor to get out of the house.

“I’ve been busy all my life, and I intend to stay busy,” he said.

For two hours that day, Klearman hosted a steady parade of visitors that, indeed, felt like they had just walked into the friendliest store in town.

Some were random shoppers just passing by who told him he didn’t look a day over 75. Others were longtime customers, such as Doris and Ray Meyer, who made a point of stopping at the store just to say happy birthday to their Melvin, a cheerful man they spoke with regularly and yet whose last name they did not know.

“He likes to go above and beyond to make sure everyone is taken care of,” explained store manager Cindy Joseph of his popularity and longevity. “A lot of customers just come in to talk to Melvin.”

A few minutes later, Jim Buydos walked over from the restaurant he owns across the street to shake Klearman’s hand. Not long after came Jack Nelson, a regular with a wise guy sense of humor, who asked, “Who let this guy into this place?”

Given the new nonagenarian’s energy, Klearman had predictable advice for those new to the workforce: “You have to work hard. Today it’s necessary. Very necessary,” he said.

Klearman’s longtime neighbor, Ara Upadhya, had taken time out of his workday to stop by the store and text some photos of the party to Klearman’s son, Paul, in St. Louis, and daughter, Barbara, in Tucson, Ariz.

Upadhya said Klearman’s work ethic and energy was infectious – perhaps a little too much.

“Because of him, I’m actually mowing my lawn most every day,” he said.

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