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90-year-old 'bag boy' has a wealth of experience

Wes Hemenway, who recently turned 90, is a courtesy clerk at Vons and has been in the grocery business since the 1930s. Braden Putman is in the cart while mom Sara pays for groceries.
Wes Hemenway, who recently turned 90, is a courtesy clerk at Vons and has been in the grocery business since the 1930s. Braden Putman is in the cart while mom Sara pays for groceries. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Ninety-year-old Wes Hemenway will look you in the eye and tell you why he’s still alive and happy: “One — I’m in good health. Two — I’ve got a good frame of mind. Three — I like my job.”

All this is obvious as Hemenway, a Vons courtesy clerk in Paso Robles, carefully and methodically bags groceries as if they were his own. He corrects the checker who mistakenly reaches for plastic instead of paper, and places a customer’s eggs gingerly atop a cartful of bags with a smile and a cheer: “You got a good load there!”

“At work, he’s Mr. Popularity. He’s the only 90-year-old who will carry your groceries to your car,” said daughter Beth Hemenway, 59, of Paso Robles.

In 1937, at age 16, Wes Hemenway began bagging potatoes, cutting butter, boxing eggs and measuring sugar and flour at the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Co. (known colloquially as the A&P) in Gloversville, N.Y. He’s been in the grocery business ever since.

Even during his World War II deployment from 1940 to 1946, he served as a quartermaster, distributing provisions to troops.

He said he’ll never forget waking up beneath an Army hospital tent in Liege, Belgium, after a bout with appendicitis. His captain loomed over him. “You gotta go back and make payroll,” he told Hemenway. “You’re the only one who can do it.”

He returned from service to America’s Northeast, where he spent years moving around as manager of more than seven Grand Union grocery stores.

He developed a reputation for his charm, but also for tough love — firing a meat counter attendant who violated a company policy by refusing to wear a bowtie.

“The company says you do this, and if you don’t, you don’t work,” Hemenway told The Tribune.

More than a hundred people attended his retirement banquet in 1984 in Albany, N.Y. — but he was soon at it again.

“I can’t sit around! Every place I go, I sit maybe a week.”

He moved to Carmel, where he worked for independent grocery stores. The manager warned the then 79–year-old he would have to work Sundays, to which Hemenway responded: “I’ve always had to work Sundays.”

After his wife died, he moved into his daughter’s home in Paso Robles in 2005, and he applied for a job at Vons.

“I just want to be a ‘bag boy’ — that’s what we used to call them — and shoot the ol’ baloney to these people,” he said.

So four days a week, Hemenway spends 6:30 to 11 a.m. bagging groceries and making friends.

“I like people every person that comes through that door — there is a story,” he said.

Jeannine Manninger, who once worked alongside Hemenway at Vons, said his main skill is “being able to connect with people, regardless of who they are.”

He can’t even begin to estimate how many friends he’s made in each city he’s lived.

Store manager Chris Cross said, “He’s an inspiration to us all.”

And Hemenway shows no signs of stopping.

“It doesn’t seem as if I’m 90,” he said. “Sixty, 70, 80, 90 — it still feels the same.”

He gets off Thursday, and by Sunday afternoon, he has his clothes laid out for work on Monday.

Along with bagging and chatting with customers, he regularly dispenses more than 70 years of grocery knowledge to his younger colleagues.

His best advice, he says: “Look customers in their baby blue eyes and then ask them, ‘May I help you?’ ”

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