Sunday, June 11, 2017

The Man In The Jack & Jill Grocery Store

Harland Epp died last week. No one called to let me know and it wasn't on the news. Like most deaths I learn of these days, I found out by reading the online obituary in my hometown newspaper, the York News-Times. I learned he was one hundred years old and that he had played the banjo and guitar. I learned the name of his wife and kids and the date of his baptism. There were things I knew about him. He was born and raised in Henderson, Nebraska in York County, the same county of my upbringing. I also knew he was in the grocery business and that's why I knew him.

For four years when I was a kid, I worked in a grocery store in my hometown. It was called Jack & Jill and it was run by a company out of Minnesota, Nash-Finch. There were Jack & Jills all over Nebraska. I think ours was bigger than most, being the second largest store in York behind IGA/Super Valu. My older brother, Dave, had worked there first and I put in my time from age sixteen through twenty. I had always worked- paper route, mowing grass, shoveling snow, detasseling corn- but this was my first real job. Truthfully, the place made me nervous and I'm not sure why. I would avoid it if it was not my day to work. I was a good employee and they kept giving me increased responsibility whether I wanted it or not which usually I didn't. Harland was the assistant manager at the store during my four year retail career but he never made me nervous. In fact, it was just the opposite. He never got angry, at me or anyone else. He was always helpful and calm. I called him Mr. Epp when I started- he was quite a bit older than my father- but soon he became Harland to me, just like he was to everyone else. Reading the obituary, I was reminded he had previously owned his own store in Henderson. One thing I didn't know was that he put all forty hours at our store in in only three days so he could work on his house. I also found out he rode a horse to school and the maiden name of his bride, Lillie, was Friesen, the same last name as one of my favorite baseball teammates, Ross. And there were several other factual references to Harland's life that made the reader feel a bit more connected to a man whose life span was a century plus seven months.

I have a confession to make. When I go to the obit part of the York newspaper, I only read them if I am somehow familiar with the name of the person who passed away. In my history teaching days, my students were required to memorize John Donne's For Whom The Bell Tolls which waxes eloquent that every death should have an impact on our lives. Theoretically and spiritually, that is true but I haven't advanced to that point yet. As I've read Harland's obituary, the remarkable thing is that to the world, and I would guess even to Harland, it was unremarkable. He lived a normal life and did normal things. He was a solid citizen and raised a solid family. He never called attention to himself and was always soft spoken. I think I met his wife once and I never once saw him outside the confines of that grocery store. And yet, he had a remarkable effect on my life. He helped me adjust to part-time life in the grocery business and he helped me overcome the nerves that appear when an introvert steps into uncharted territory. And in that Jack & Jill store, I learned about clocking in and out, dealing with the public and unreasonable customers, and working late. I found out I could help out in the produce department and run a truck sale in the parking lot on my own. I learned that not everyone in the world had been taught by their parents that there were serious obligations when a business invests time and trust in you. Harland, I'm sure, never had a goal of mentoring a sixteen year old kid but he did. The lessons I learned which have helped me in life can in at least some way be traced back to him.

Probably all of us have a Harland Epp in our past somewhere and if we hang around on earth long enough, we'll play that role to someone else. There are people who change the direction of  lives, either with one gesture or a drawn out collection of gestures. Often, it's anonymous, even in the scriptures. What was the name of the guy who loaned the colt to Jesus for His ride into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday? Who was the servant girl who pleaded with Naaman to beseech Elisha to cure his leprosy? There names are lost to history. I, at least, have the opportunity to give public credit to Harland Epp by name. I just wished I hadn't waited until he died to do so.

Applicable quote of the day:
When I was 15, I worked as a bag boy in a grocery store. I also needed to walk old ladies to their car and put their bags in the car, and they would give me two dollars. I felt like the richest man in the world. 

Adam DeVine

God bless,
Luke 18:1
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