NUMBER PLEASE: A story of life, love, and work.
By: Garrett P. Shotwell
ON THE MORNING of December 31st, 2016, she stretched her extremities across her side of the bed, and was quickly reminded of the aching joints and back pain which have plagued her the last several years. However, no amount of pain would weaken her spirit and excitement of the day ahead. I imagine a boastful smile, rooted in humility, creeped across her face as she thought, “I’m done.”
Weeks prior to her last day in the workforce she completed a ritualistic countdown, “15 more days, 10, 5, 2,” she would recite each morning before she dragged herself out of bed to do what she has been doing each day for the past 50+ years: go to work. By the end of this workday; however, she would accompany the majority of her peers, and her husband, and join the world of the retired.
“How does it feel?” I inquire on one of our phone conversations. “Well, it feels good!” She says. While I couldn’t see her face, I could sense the grin. She continued to state:
“I’ve always been so conscience of work, even though I didn’t have to be that way. I didn’t ever want to be late, or anything like that– Of course, I could have taken advantage of it, but there is no sense in that. I have always felt kinda rushed and pressured, but now I don’t feel any of that. It’s a good feeling to know that you don’t have to be anywhere at any time. I’m just getting into it, but it surely didn’t take me long to get here.”
I’m not in the least surprised that, Jerry (or as I refer to her as “Maw-Maw”) has adapted to her newly retired status with grace. Growing up, the daughter of a sawyer (saw mill worker), she never stayed in one place too long. It was rare for she and her sister to begin a school year and finish in the same town. They moved often, and most of the time with little or no notice. Adjusting quickly was a necessity that Jerry learned early during her formative years, which may help explain her grit and no-nonsense attitude…. who knows how much time you have left in one place, no time to waste.
While her childhood may seem chaotic to the onlooker, she has only fond memories full of love and support. This love was ever present after her high school graduation in 1957, at which time her family relocated away from her north Louisiana roots to south Louisiana. They lived in a boarding house inside the small sawmill community of Hardwood, Louisiana. Each month a little money was taken out of their paycheck to cover their room and board. She speaks of this time, reminiscing of the community and without stating it, relayed how it was a simpler time, as most people do when reflecting on their past.
It was while living in Hardwood that she got her very first job. This was the beginning of a fruitful, five-decade journey of contribution to the workforce. She began as a “floater” of sorts at Hardwood General Store bouncing between assisting mill workers making a draw on their paychecks in the commissary, and working in the grocery and dry goods portion of the store. She made approximately $1.00 per hour. Little did she know that this job would change her future in a powerful way.
On a cool October evening Jerry was working the cash register, when her boss, Mr. Aldridge, introduced her to a very handsome young man he’d known all of his life, Henry Monroe Nettles. Henry had just discharged from the US Air force and returned from the war in Korea. I can imagine Henry flirting with Jerry as their matchmaker, Mr. Aldridge, silently observed. A short time later, Henry (or “paw- paw”) returned to Hardwood General Store to ask Jerry on their first date, which took place at a restaurant called “South of the Border.” (Ironically, the two would celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary with their extensive network of family and friends at that very same spot many years later.)
When I reflect on my own preconceptions of courtship, or dating, in the late 1950’s, it generally isn’t clouded with the concept of “working”. However, Jerry’s love story, not only starts here, it lives here. Working is forever linked with Jerry’s fiber and becomes a permanent landscape on which she paints her life.
LEAVING A JOB is never an easy thing to do. The way I see it is there are three ways of terminating a working relationship: 1) a happy ending, meaning both parties are a little sad, but know it’s for the best; 2) a bad ending, meaning that one or both parties is disgruntled about a departure; or 3) an apathetic ending, meaning neither party really cares.
While working at the store and “paying her dues,” Jerry exhibited a dedication to her job, which has remained ever present throughout her career. To her, the idea of “not working hard” is simply unfathomable. This could have been learned by her parents, which I know is possible, as I’ve observed it from my parents, who without doubt have learned it from theirs.
After continuing to work at the general store in Hardwood, Jerry developed a deep affection and admiration for her boss. Her “smarts” and ability to get a job done became quickly evident and she excelled at every task. After a few years however, she learned of a better paying job through a high school friend, Sue Smith. The only caveat was that she had to act quickly. The local telephone company was paying $1.50 per hour for answering the switchboard saying, “Number Please,” and connecting people to their respective requests. Jerry knew an opportunity when she saw one and decided to hastily move on this new job. Having such a short timeframe for starting her new job, she felt conflicted about the short notice to her current employer. Although my grandparents and the Aldridge family continued a lifelong friendship, before Jerry left Mr. Aldridge imparted her with one piece of lasting advice, which has stuck with her throughout her entire career:
“I’m going to let you leave, but always remember to give your employer more of a notice than this.”
I could hear the admiration in her voice as she spoke of Mr. Aldridge’s wisdom and kindness. I could also sense that she absorbed those words like a seasoning ingesting them and making them so much a part of her professional identity that it would be impossible to repute her from his feedback. A pattern of life lessons received and absorbed that would take hold and never change. That exchange was the first of a lifelong trend of relationship building through work. In fact, as we continued to discuss her professional resume’, I was not only impressed with the sheer dedication to self-improvement, but by the number of people in which she has personally impacted.
As I ponder today’s generation and the assumption that you need to “know people” to get well paying job, I realize that is in direct opposition to how my beloved grandmother obtained her opportunities. She found work by exercising a farm-like dedication to whichever task she was completing– then found people.
Oftentimes, when describing my grandmother’s talents and work experiences I preface with, “If she would have been a man, she would have been the president of the bank.” While, I wholeheartedly agree with that sentiment, I now realize how limiting that logic is. It discounts decades of persistence and utter determination on her part. Despite the obvious obstacles she encountered as a female in the mid-century workplace, throughout our recent conversations after I gently inquired on her experiences as such, she exhibited a disinterest in discussing the topic. I wondered if that was due to a lack of introspection, or the normalization of her experience. I’ve concluded that it is the latter.
While she is cognizant that her name “Jerry,” short for Geraldine, could have positively impacted her professional growth, her early working years was a time where the gender pay gap was even wider than it is presently (if you can even imagine). I don’t think she fully comprehends the collective strides in which she has made. Call it raising the ‘glass-ceiling,’ or advocating by practice, she pushed the boundaries, even with forced interruptions in employment, which she was no stranger to. In this present time of 2016 we may find it appalling that it was simply understood that a woman would be asked to leave employment the moment she began to show her pregnancy. However, it was the social norm during her time in history. Thus, her disinterest or lack of willingness to discuss her willingness to stand up in the face of these oppressive rules and social norms as an outspoken opponent aren’t due to her lack of insightfulness, but rather it is simply how things were. Much like her inability to comprehend people with little work ethic, she never saw herself as an oppressed person, but rather a person who overcame obstacles.
In August of 1960, my grandparents became parents for the first time, and twice more over the next 5 years. As a result, she was a “mother, housekeeper, all of the things” for a period of approximately 5-6 years. She gladly stayed at home to raise their three children, as her new husband had a well paying job at the local Crownzellerback paper mill.
Several years after her youngest daughter was born, Jerry realized, with the help of her dear lifelong friend Vonnie Peterson, that she wasn’t cut out to be a stay at home mom. Jerry’s mind and personality needed stimulation beyond the four walls of home. This fell squarely outside of the social norms at the time. Jerry not only would raise her children, work a full time job, but also be somewhat of a supermom in that she was an excellent organizer and proponent of her girls’ Bluebird and Campfire Girls organizations. All the while have a hot breakfast and dinner on the table every single day. It was during this time when she started working in finance. Little did she know this shift would start modeling her professional legacy. While she was no stranger to hard work (she sold Avon for heaven’s sake), it seemed that around this time she embarked on a path that would solidify her reputation and quality to the industry… Not to mention, one of the only females on this journey in the surrounding areas.
PERSONAL RELATIONSHIPS with her co-workers were prevalent more than ever during this time. While working in finance she realized that she not only “liked it,” but she was “good at it”. She really enjoyed the fasted-paced environment. However, most importantly she was friend with all of her co-workers. It became a pattern that would follow her throughout her professional career. She collected friendships as easily as she collected accolades as a consummate professional. It was during this time that she met her lifelong friend, John Travis, who recently passed away. She spoke of him in almost a childlike manner, as if she was missing a friend from summer camp. One could tell she was filled with admiration and respect towards him– still too raw to discuss fully, but to put it simply: she misses her friend.
Unknowingly she began describing a time in her life where she was not only developing personal relationships, but also a community. A community that she would continue to foster. This included friends at the next finance company she worked at, owner, Doug Reeves, and his wife Carolyn. Sadly, Mr. Reeves has also passed away; however, she and Carolyn are still great friends today. It was through the finance industry that she also met her dear friend, Maureen Sanders (Ross at the time). Many other lifelong friendships were gained and fostered during this time in her life.
At some point during the mid 1970’s, began working at the Bank of Jackson, running the loan department with her desk and a sole cash buggy, typing and disbursing all of the loans. Through this, she expanded her interpersonal relationships from her coworkers and peers to her customers. She expressed, “my favorite part of my job was my customers, and they always came first. I ended up with many of my customers becoming good friends. I treated them like friends, and they became my friends.”
Keeping her customers as her priority, she continued to develop and deepen her empathy towards people–A true advocate, of not just of women, but herself. After becoming pregnant with her fourth child, along with another co-worker, Sylvia Harrell, they were both informed that “IF they still had a job for them” when they returned from their 6 week maternity leave, “they would probably get it,” Later laws and protection from this type of discrimination, The Family and Medical Leave Act, wasn’t introduced into congress until 1984, and wasn’t officially passed until 1993. This meant there was no job protection for individuals who gave birth, resulting in women leaving to give birth, and not being promised a job upon return. As you can imagine, this did not bode well with Geraldine, which resulted in her finding another job that would ensure her employment upon return at a finance company… “Up the road.”
Jerry’s outspoken, sometimes overly honest, manner is legend. She was not only an advocate for herself as a professional, but for any person she felt was being oppressed or treated unfairly. She was and is a fiercely loyal advocate for her family and friends. As a child, I remember my grandmother taking my cousins & I out for a day of fun at the new Chuck E. Cheese in Baton Rouge. Once we arrived it appeared that the establishment was closed. Not taking “closed” for an answer; in her usual style my Maw Maw began banging on the door. She was then informed that it was closed due to a private event. She was adamant that there was no signage indicating the establishment was closed to the public, thus resulting in discrimination against her grandchildren. Before I knew it, my two cousins and I were playing in the ball pit with complete strangers, all of whom knew each other. As I look back I realize that her motivation was a wish to not disappoint her grandchildren from a promised day of fun. That’s the thing about my grandmother, she is outspoken, sometimes unruly, but a true leader, constantly forcing her way through the injustices and inequities, one situation at a time.
HER REPUTATION continued to precede her, as a dedicated, smart, and hard worker. She transitioned back into banking, eventually getting into her field of mortgage lending. She even returned to work at the Bank of Jackson (now Landmark Bank) and then she was recruited to run the loan department at the Bank of Commerce (now Hancock Bank) in the nearby town of St Francisville. Over the next 25-30 years she would work at pretty much all of the local banks, which includes Clinton Bank (now Landmark Bank) and eventually retiring from Feliciana Bank & Trust Company.
She experienced the her highest paying jobs, most stressful jobs, and challenging economies, all while managing departments and staying abreast of the ever-changing landscape of financial best practices and regulations. How does one summarize over 50 years of contributions without minimizing the work? It’s nearly impossible.
However, as we began wrapping up our conversation, she described a time in which she did struggle with work. In fact, she quit without having another job lined up, which was a first for her. After her mother, my great-grandmother, (Flossye) passed away, Jerry was heartbroken. Each day at work was a fog, and the better part of a month disappeared from her memory. Trying to remove my personal reaction to hearing my grandmother discuss this experience, (as I loved my great grandmother, and I love my grandmother very deeply), I felt a strange feeling towards her– the first sensation of this nature during this entire interview: “She is human,” I thought.
Then I realized what is so spectacular about my grandmother: she is unapologetically human. She has a unique understanding of the human condition. She exhibited this quality and vulnerability with her first boss, Mr. Aldridge, and I can only imagine every customer that made draws on their accounts at that humble general store at the beginning of her career. She was human to every co-worker, manager, employee, child, husband, friend, and person she has ever met. The person on the receiving end may not always like, or agree, with her very real and honest humanistic tendencies, but she is who she is.
In fact, after her mother passed away, she related the reason she left employment for a short time was that she was no longer putting her customers first… so she quit. This exhibit of dedication to the work and her customers was the ultimate sacrifice. And for this, not only does my grandmother deserve everything she has because she worked for it, but because she is a good, generous, and honest person.
OVER THE LAST five decades my grandmother has collected a lot of memories. She has 4 children, and a passel of grandchildren, great grandchildren, countless co-workers and work acquaintances, and most importantly thousands of happy customers. I’m speaking of customers who literally followed her all over the local parishes to continue their working relationships with her. These numbers of course, will continue to follow her and give her strength and happiness in her new venture into retirement. Her honesty, generosity and human qualities should inspire us all.
Before ending our call, my grandmother, somewhat randomly, mentioned that her main goal as a mother was to give her family a community, and allow her children to live in one place without moving often as she did. Well, maw-maw, not only did you exceed in giving your children a loving family and community, you surpassed this by sharing this gift with the surrounding parishes, and maybe even the State—and for that, I thank you.
Love you always,
Garrett P. Shotwell