“There may be a lot of people in Anniston who are wondering what has happened to him because he’s been in the grocery business since he was 10 years old.” – Fran Hill
PLUM SPRINGS – His name is Jerry Hill, he’s 72 years old, and holding warm if sometimes hard memories of the beginning. It is a beginning that may be nearing an ending.
But if you are among the legions of people who passed through Jerry’s life in those 60 years...
“I haven’t quit work, but in November I fell at the store and hit my head. I’ve been struggling and I want to go back to work, but I don’t think I’m going to be able to. Everybody, including my doctor, accuses me of being a workaholic.”
Jerry Hill is also battling congestive heart failure and wife Fran is just about a full-time caretaker.
But in the beginning, all a young and wiry kid from the west side of town needed was a job ...
“I got started at Randall’s Grocery at 23rd and McCoy. I was 10 years old and I did everything, undress chicken wings, sacked groceries, helped the owner with his pigs and collards and greens, swept the sidewalk.
“It was just pocket change, but we were poor. Had a sister and our mother – her name was Annie Mae – raised us back then by sewing and keeping house for people.
“When I was a little older I worked for Dear’s Curb Market at 18th and Noble. Made 30 cents an hour. I worked there about four years while I was in high school.
Drafted out of high school, he spent two years in the Army and also said he’s never work in a grocery store again. “Again” lost its definition rather quickly. He found jobs were a bit hard to find at the time.
“Every time I’d go to the unemployment office, they’d send me to a grocery store.”
But there is pride in ...
“One unemployment check in my whole life.”
Jerry’s first stop on his “never again” life came just a few days after he left the Army. He went to work at Little Fite’s at Seventh & Noble, was there three years and it was in that stretch Jerry Hill became part of Anniston’s grocery fabric. To say Little Fite’s was popular is an understatement ...
“The store’s slogan was ‘Where the people shop and the buses stop.’ Back then we had buses in town.
It was his skill at sweeping sidewalks that led to his next job, at another grocery store, of course.
“A Mr. Lusk was the manager at the A&P store down the street. I was out sweeping the sidewalk one morning when he walked by. He came by every morning on his way to the bank. His name was Jesse. He eased up beside me and asked if I wanted a job.
“I was making $1 an hour, he offered me $1.50. There was no minimum wage back then and I used to work 60-70 hours a week. That was the norm in the grocery business back then.”
“I always gave the man I worked for 100 percent and I tried to learn everything I could and I could do it all ... cut meat, supervise, stock, manage, even sweep the sidewalk.”
He learned well.
Over the years Jerry Hill worked just about everywhere you could buy a loaf of bread and dozen eggs. A&P (all eight in the area) and Food Outlet are on the list.
He was a fast learner, too.
At the tender age of 26, he became a manager in the A&P chain. In fact, he got a letter from A&P headquarters on his step to the top, pointing out that he was the youngest manager ever in the A&P chain. Pretty good since A&P was nation-wide and had corporate headquarters in New York.
Jerry told me something else worth passing along.
“Things have really changed. Back then you knew all of your customers and if you didn’t see one of your customers in a week or so you’d call to see what was wrong.
“I’ve always been a people person, but time has caught up with me. The young don’t work as hard and everything is done on computer. I’m no computer whiz, but I love to work, always have.
“My mother was a hard worker and I guess I got it from her. I’ve passed that on to my kids, too.”
There is a quiet silence and then ...
“I retired once two years ago, out six months, but I couldn’t handle it.
Another moment and ...
“I have a fear even today that I have to work. I don’t have to work, but I’m afraid if I quit I won’t have enough money to live out my life. We were so poor as kids, I never want to go back.”
But he would like to go back, back to the aisles of Food Outlet where he’s been living his working hours for the past 25 years.
If not, he has a couple of Corvettes and a rather amazing collection of model cars to “tinker” with.
Thing is, nothing is forever, not even the good guys such as Jerry Hill ... even if half of Anniston believed he was forever.
Thank you for listening ... and Jerry, take a bow.
George Smith can be reached at 256-239-5286 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org