Saturday, April 5, 2008

Still working at 89? Meet Shari's dynamo

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Originally published in The Oregonian on March, 2008. Photo of Benson and text by Jason Simms.

Evelyn Benson greets customers, clears tables, fills water glasses and does just about anything else needed at the Shari's Restaurant on Northeast 122nd Avenue.

This wouldn't be notable, except for one thing: Benson is 89.

She not only works, she has fun doing it. The night after the Academy Awards, Benson's ball of white hair bobbed between booths faster than usual as she showed off a picture of herself in a red gown and feathered boa from a party at the Hollywood Theatre.

"I went to the Oscars last night," she kept saying.

During a sale on pies, she put on a sandwich board, giant clown gloves and a pie box on her head to go outside to wave in customers. And if you ask, she'll show you a photo of herself skydiving last year or tell you about her recent rafting trip on the Deschutes River.

As for the triple bypass a little more than a year ago, she says, "That slowed me down quite a bit." Temporarily? "You got that one right, sweetheart."

Co-worker Christina Zlobina, 19, says simply: "She's an amazing creature."

Benson, among the 4 percent of Oregon's work force 65 and older, according to 2006 U.S. Labor Department statistics, works to stay active, not for the money.

Others aren't so lucky. LaVerne DeWeese, a widow and retired Portland Public Schools custodian, works at the Interstate Fred Meyer in North Portland to pay the bills.

"The heat, oh, the heat," she says. "I remember when 100 gallons (of oil) was 50-some dollars, and now it's up in the hundreds."

Still, she is a model of serenity as she silently guides customers in and out with slow hand motions and a wide smile. As a young woman runs up, interjects a question and darts away, DeWeese smiles and calmly says, "No one knows how to say 'excuse me' anymore."

Pat Wright -- like DeWeese, uncomfortable with giving her exact age -- has the most unusual job of the three. She manages Magic Gardens, an Old Town strip club. Wright, the onetime owner of Patty's Royal Cafe in Southeast, took a couple of shifts there 15 years ago as a favor to the owner.

"I had never been in a strip club before that," she says. At the time, she adds, "it was known for drugs and being a really rough place."

But Wright, a small woman who's soft voice is almost inaudible in the noisy club, soon became the manager and was determined to turn the place around.

"I went to hiring girls that had a purpose for dancing," she says. "I'm very proud of the fact that we have three girls that danced their way through law school."

"She really developed that place," says Ted Papaioannou, owner of nearby Berbati's Pan. "Now it's a young hip place." While his bar has 13 bartenders on a busy night, Wright works alone. "She can outwork any bartender half her age -- one-third her age," he says.

Wright says the club is her pride and joy. But without a retirement fund after taking in a couple of grandchildren, working there is also a necessity.

As for being a grandmother at a strip club, she says, "What difference does it make? In 15 years, I've never been late. I haven't called in sick once in 15 years."

Back at Shari's, Benson says she moved to Portland at age 7. Her first job after high school was making coffin interiors during World War II.

She retired from restaurant work in 1991, when her husband died. Golf and bowling kept her busy during the day, but she was bored in her apartment in Northeast's Argay neighborhood at night.

So she went back to work, first as a Kmart greeter. She stayed 16 years, much of the time in costumes -- a pilgrim in November, Mrs. Claus in December. She left in 2006 after a disagreement with new management, and went just down the road to Shari's. Now she puts in 15 to 20 hours a week there at night and spends days volunteering at retirement communities.

"I help these little old people thread a needle and try to do things," she says.

Yes, some of those people are younger than she is.



This is the original blog post linking to the story before the OregonLive url expired.

Last Thursday's Oregonian had a story I did on three women who, for different reasons, are working past retirement age, including 89-year-old Shari's waitress, Evelyn Benson.

One of the women, Laverne DeWeese, who is a greeter at Fred Meyer, mentioned that she has been teaching herself piano to have something to do since her husband is dead. After the story came out, she called me to thank me and asked me a few things about my life. When I told her I play music, she asked if I could teach her the Baptist chords on piano. Since I don't know what the Baptist chords are and I don't play piano, I asked if she'd tried Craigslist. She doesn't have the Internet. So I put up a post for her. Send an email if you know someone who'd be into hanging out with a cool lady.

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