January 29, 1927.
Some pretty important people were born this day. Lewis Urry (he invented the alkaline and lithium batteries), Edward Abbey (the acclaimed American author and essayist) … and Jackie Downer.
“Who is Jackie Downer,” you may ask? “We haven’t heard of her.” Well, that’s OK – she’s pretty famous in her own right at the Lowe’s in Portage, Mich. And how did she earn such prestige? Was it because of her fabulous earrings (her mother’s) and coordinating outfits? Or because she always remembers to bring in cake for coworkers’ birthdays? Or maybe it’s the stickers (ones with hearts and smiley faces mostly) she has ready and waiting for kids who pass through her checkout line?
“Yes” to all the above. Oh, and did we mention she’s 90?
You read that right. She’s 90 and still going strong.
Downer was born in Birmingham, Ala. After 10 years, she and her family moved back to Michigan where her parents were from originally. She had, what she calls, a pretty normal childhood.
“My worst childhood memory was when my brother was born,” she said, laughing. “We listened to the radio a lot and played hide and seek … we didn’t have to worry about some of the things kids worry about today.”
When she was a teenager, she went with her mother to a local college to take an aptitude test. Her highest score was in the medical section. Her mom convinced her to start nursing school and although that didn’t work out – “I liked the practical side of it, but not the chemistry,” Downer explained – she landed a job as a receptionist and typist for an ear, nose and throat practice. Downer worked her way up to office manager and in 1989 – after 33 years on the job – decided to retire. She thought she might enjoy some downtime. She was wrong.
“I remember thinking to myself ‘I’ve got to be back out with people again,’” she said.
So that’s what she did. For the next 10 years, she worked various part time jobs (including one at a local YMCA, where she learned to play tennis … at the age of 62). Then she heard that a Lowe’s store was opening in her town.
“By that time I had sold my condo and bought a house,” Downer said. “I’d really become a do-it-yourself with wall papering, painting and yard work … I could even wire a light fixture. I always wanted to work in a type of store like Lowe’s.”
She was hired as a cashier before the store even opened, and fondly remembers wearing hard hats those first couple of weeks on the job because of last-minute construction.
That was in 2002. She’s been at the store ever since. A few things have changed – coworkers, products and even the location of the carts in the store – but one thing has been constant: Jackie and her reputation as the store’s kind and caring “mom” to both customers and coworkers.
Dan O’Rourke is a maintenance repairman and has been a daily customer at the store for the last 15 years. Downer is one of his favorites.
“It’s rare when you can go into a store these days and find someone so caring and warm to talk to,” O’Rourke said. “It feels like I’m talking to family. I look forward to going to her aisle when she is there … she always brightens my day.”
Downer is a source of happiness for her fellow employees, too.
“Jackie is always a joy to be around,” said fellow cashier Sarah Jones. “She is always smiling. If you’re having a bad day, she will turn it around.”
Store Manager Nate Woodruff agrees.
“It’s rare in life that you meet someone who makes it impossible to be upset around, but Jackie is definitely one of those people,” Woodruff said. “Her kind spirit and genuine warmth and compassion are an inspiration to me and everyone she comes in contact with.”
And the feeling is reciprocated.
“They’re pretty special,” Downer said of her coworkers. “These people are my family. I love working with them. I just like being here.”
And “being here” is something Downer plans on doing for a long time. Working – in addition to reading, knitting, going to the movies and occasionally hitting up a casino – is something she loves to do.
“I don’t want to stay at home in vegetate in front of a TV,” she said. “I’m a people person. I just like to do things and be out with people. As long as I can still take care of customers and give them back the right change, I’ll keep going.”
And her advice to those who may just be starting their careers?
“Be on time, use your common sense and live by the golden rule … if everybody did that, I think it would be a pretty nice ole’ world.”
Downer is one of eight nonagenarians (people between the ages of 90 and 99) who work at Lowe’s. You can read about another Lowe’s nonagenarian – Bob Adams – here.