CEDAR RAPIDS — On Friday evenings and Saturday afternoons, you’ll find 90-year-old Millie Corbett in the produce section of the Hy-Vee on Edgewood Road NE.
She’s not shopping for groceries. She’s working.
According to the Pew Research Center, more Americans aged 65 and older are choosing to work later in life. A survey in 2000 showed 12.8 percent of older Americans reported they were employed full- or part-time, while this year 18.8 percent reported employment. For those 75 years and older specifically, the percentage increased from 5.4 to 8.4 percent.
Like many post-retirees, Corbett wasn’t quite ready to be done working when she retired from City Paper Co. in Birmingham, Ala., at the age of 66, so she began demonstrating food at grocery stores.
Then, after 33 years of working in Alabama, she and her husband, Bill, returned to Cedar Rapids, where they had raised their three children. Two years after their 2003 return, though, Bill died from complications related to Alzheimer’s.
Corbett made sure to stay busy, returning to work as a food demonstrator at the Edgewood Road Hy-Vee when it opened in 2006.
She works 10 hours a week at the grocery store, slicing and sampling food in the produce section — her 4-foot-10 frame shadowed by her 10-year-old demonstration table, an older model she insists on using instead of Hy-Vee’s new replacements.
Those few hours on her feet, she believes, have kept her healthy. In fact, she said, working has been her lifesaver.
“It’s a lot better than sitting on the couch,” she said.
In just one hour of her four-hour shift Sept. 9, several customers stopped by not only to taste samples of pear apples and peppers, but also to catch up.
Last month, Corbett had been out for gallbladder surgery. When she wasn’t there for her usual shift, people came looking for her, said Roxann Martinek, Edgewood Road Hy-Vee’s human resources manager. When her picture ran in The Gazette July 21 for her 90th birthday, many of her regular visitors sent birthday cards, too.
“Everyone loves Millie,” Martinek said. “She’s so friendly and easy to talk to and takes interest in customers, which makes them feel special. She’s just like everyone’s grandma.”
“When I come in, I look for her,” said Giora Neta, a Cedar Rapids resident and one of Corbett’s regular customers.
Even though Corbett doesn’t always know the customer’s names, she often recognizes them and remembers their story, she said.
Gestures like asking how customers are, how their kids are or simply smiling and greeting them every time she sees them are what Neta said he loves about Corbett.
“She’s always so nice and always smiles. I think she’s beautiful,” he said. “She’s so nice to everybody.”
“She’s just a sweet old lady that everybody wants to talk to,” said Dan Carney, her manager and the manager of the produce section.
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While chatting at work might usually be considered a problem, Carney doesn’t see it that way.
“Yeah, she chats a little bit but that’s the atmosphere we want,” he said. “That’s the Hy-Vee thing: it’s a friendly place to shop. And people can’t help but buy from a sweet old lady. She’s a perfect fit for us.”
Corbett said the job is a good fit for her, too. In fact, she said it’s “the best in town.”
“I told myself I would quit when I’d been here for 10 years and when I turned 90,” she said. “But now it’s been 10 years and I’m 90 and I don’t feel like quitting, so I guess I don’t know when I’ll quit.”