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60-year work anniversary 'no big deal' for Van Meter's 'Kathy E'

Still works full-time in same department, maintains high expectations at age 77

As the longest-serving employee-owner of Van Meter, Kathy Etscheidt’s picture is at the front of a “Meet The Owners” display in the Cedar Rapids branch. (John Steppe/The Gazette)
As the longest-serving employee-owner of Van Meter, Kathy Etscheidt’s picture is at the front of a “Meet The Owners” display in the Cedar Rapids branch. (John Steppe/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — When Kathy Etscheidt started working at Van Meter in 1959, her boss expected the 17-year-old to stay there for a couple years before leaving.

That boss was wrong by about 58 years. Etscheidt celebrated her 60th work anniversary in June at the employee-owned industrial and electrical supplier based in Cedar Rapids.

Her supervisor Nate Jensema got permission from Etscheidt to throw a small celebration, but the 77-year-old employee didn’t want anything big.

“I knew they were going to have a small celebration,” Etscheidt said, emphasizing “small.”

“She shared that she wanted to keep it pretty small,” Jensema said. “She agreed to a little bit of a celebration. I may have taken a little bit of a liberty there (in planning) the celebration.”

The whole Cedar Rapids branch was invited. While some people still had to work, the turnout was beyond what Etscheidt was hoping for with a small gathering.

“People here are friends,” Etscheidt said. “They care about you. If they ask how you are, it isn’t in passing. It’s that they really mean, ‘How are you today? Is everything OK?’ ... We care about each other.”

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The job duties have hardly changed. She writes Van Meter’s checks that go to vendors, and invoices and remittances. The only checks leaving Van Meter’s doors without Etscheidt seeing first are payroll.

Jensema said his expectations for Etscheidt have not gone down as she’s gotten older, and neither have the results.

“Kathy is a high-performer,” Jensema said. “The same level of expectations we have for somebody walking in the door is the expectations we have for Kathy.”

Not much else has changed either.

She spent “56 or 57” of those years at the same house in Newhall, too.

“It’s just the highway is a little bit wider and the traffic is a little bit more,” Etscheidt said. “It takes me about 20 minutes.”

When she first started the 20-minute commute, she was driving a Chevrolet car, she said. As she drives to the Cedar Rapids office in 2019, she still drives a Chevy. The Equinox has a few more features than her original car, though.

While her responsibilities have not changed much, she’s seen the company’s culture change drastically. She never reminded her boss about her two-year expectation because the boss “wasn’t the kind of person you reminded.” Now she described the work environment as much more relaxed.

Etscheidt isn’t the only long-serving employee, although nobody is within a decade of her 60-year feat. One person in the Waterloo branch has been there for 45 years.

“We like to reminisce a lot about the past and different things that’s happened to the company,” Etscheidt said.

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Meanwhile the younger employees like Jensema keep Etscheidt “on (her) toes.” Jensema said he has learned more from Etscheidt than she’s learned from him. When Jensema first started at Van Meter, Etscheidt kept him in check and made sure he wasn’t changing things too quickly, he said.

“I think her response was, ‘Well, you’ve been here for a couple months. I’ve been here for like 50 years. Let’s just slow down a little bit,’” Jensema said. “She said it somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but I think the message I took from it was, ‘Don’t rush into things.’”

Etscheidt has plenty of more time to reminisce, too. She said she probably won’t be at Van Meter in 2025, but when she leaves still is up in the air.

“I always say, ‘When it isn’t fun anymore, I’m out of here,’” Etscheidt said. “I enjoy coming to work every day and hope to continue for a couple more years anyway.”

l Comments: john.steppe@thegazette.com

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