Still working, still happy
91-year-old has overseen family business for six decades
This is just one of those places.
In one corner there are canoes. In another there are chafing dishes. In the parking lot there’s everything from semi-trailers to lawn mowers. There are tools everywhere you look — something called a power trough, something called a stud remover, and a whole lot of somethings that look like they would wipe out your plans for a leisurely Saturday in the blink of an eye.
In the office, the conversations are often about things you’ve never thought of — today it is the difference between floor polish and floor wax. Then there are the office dogs. At least three of them — big outdoor types — roaming around. Except for the one that doesn’t. One lies in front of the stairs and has to literally be picked up by employees to clear a path to the hallway.
This is Anderson Rentals, Lawrence’s version of the ultimate next-door neighbor’s garage. It has everything that you don’t, and always something that amazes you.
Here, there’s little doubt about where you’ll find that. At the top of the stairs — behind a door that has a hand-made caricature and the word “information” hanging from it — is the woman behind the curtain.
“I know I’m helpful,” says Hazel Anderson from a desk cluttered with mail, an adding machine and a squawking walkie-talkie, “because I’m trained.”
Ms. Hazel Anderson indeed is trained. She is 91 years old. Actually 91 and a half, she says. She works here six days a week.
Anderson Rentals, 1312 W. Sixth St., is open seven days per week. But Anderson takes off Wednesdays. That’s when she cleans her house. It is a four-story home and she cleans one floor each week. At the end of the month, like the guy who paints the Golden Gate Bridge, she starts over.
On the six days that she’s here — that’s Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, she points out — her schedule varies a little bit.
“The doctor doesn’t want me to work more than four to five hours,” she says as she stops to do some figuring in her head. “I probably work about six hours a day.”
But hold on, Mr. M.D. Before you pick up that phone to gently chide, she had one other thing to say about her physician of 34 years.
“I hope I don’t outlive my doctor,” she says out of the blue. “That would be terrible. I just hope he takes care of himself.”
It is not often that you see a computer on the desk of a 91-year old. If you do, it often is a paperweight or the butt of a joke or the subject of some complaint. Not from Anderson, though.
“It helps,” Anderson said of the computer that she uses for her duties, which includes key operations such as examining invoices and maintaining bank statements.
It is different from how she used to do it — she’s been part of the business since her late husband, Raymond, started the company in the 1940s — but that doesn’t bother her.
“If you do things like you did five years ago, you are out of touch,” Anderson said. “You just might as well know that change is going to happen.”
Nowhere does change happen faster than on the calendar. Days go by, and at 91 you could fill the semi out front with all the worn calendar pages Anderson has seen. But she insists she spends her time looking at just one day. The current one.
“They are experiences that happened then,” Anderson said when asked about the “good old days.” “We just need to rely on those experiences to make today better. That’s what you’ve got to do with them.”
At this point, it seems almost silly to ask why she does this. At 91-and-a-half, at six days per week, there can only be one answer. She likes it.
“I was always looking for a business life,” Anderson said.
She started taking classes at Lawrence’s business college before she even got out of high school. She wasn’t even planning on getting married, until Raymond talked her into it.
She said she likes the idea of serving people’s needs, and she also admits an affinity for figures, although not necessarily money.
“If a customer comes in the door and we don’t have what we think they need, we’ll tell them,” Anderson said. “So, we’ll never be wealthy. But I don’t want to be wealthy. The good thing is I’ve never envied the lady next door if she had something that I didn’t.”
No, the question really seems to be how she does it. That’s really a two-part question. There’s how she’s healthy enough to keep up this pace, and Anderson said on that there’s really no secret. Just luck, good fortune, a “blessed existence,” as she puts it.
But then there’s the question of how someone can enjoy something for so long. After all, it is work, and it has been work for more than six decades now.
Maybe it is just in the genes. Her youngest of five children, Bill Anderson, seems to have it. He doesn’t act amazed at all about his mother’s work schedule.
“I don’t know any different. She was here before me,” he said. “The key is she’s never stopped.”
And to him, that sounds like a good plan.
“I don’t know if I’ll have her longevity, but I think we pretty much have a die-at-our-desk plan,” Bill Anderson said.
Anderson has an easy answer for it all.
“I think I was just born happy,” Anderson said. “Everything I’ve ever done, I’ve been happy at. I even like washing the dishes because I get to look out the window.”
But there are times in life when such easy answers ring a little hollow. There was the time as a young woman, where for eight years, it looked like she and Raymond might not be able to start a family. There was a time just a couple of years ago when she spent 41 days at Lawrence Memorial Hospital recovering from major surgery.
“We’ve had disasters, we’ve had things that have scared us,” Anderson said.
But even during those times, she’s been able to find happiness.
“I think we were determined to be happy,” Anderson said. “I think it really is a frame of mind.”
And that may be where Hazel Anderson is really on to something.
“That really is the key, isn’t it,” said the Rev. Peter Luckey, who has known Anderson for years as the pastor of Plymouth Congregational Church. “It really is a choice. Hazel has certainly decided that whatever life throws at her, she is going to handle it with a positive attitude.
“And what else she’s done is she’s recognized that being happy is being engaged in the lives of others.”
And for Anderson, of course, that just means another day at the office.