Through the Lens: A Labor of Love Found In A Checkout Line
This week’s column is my Labor Day story. It is not your typical story of labor and its struggles. This story is about two people who by chance found employment and love in the checkout line of Witschey’s grocery store.
I will begin with the story of Denny Wichterman. He was born in Weirton in 1956. His parents had five other children, two boys and three girls. His father, Hubert worked in the steel mill on the blast furnaces. His mother Pauline, was a stay at home mom whose full time job was raising six kids in a steel town.
At that time in Weirton, growing up posed some challenges with social unrest in the area. His grandfather, decided he wanted Hubert and family to have a better life away from the grit and grim of a mill town. So, he purchased a farm at the head of Piney. Denny was in the six grade when the family moved. He was use to riding his bike downtown and going to the movie theater. Moving up the right fork of Piney was a culture shock for the family. He laughed as he said “we were plunged into the whole Green Acres thing, cows, hogs, chickens, we became farmers with all that went with it.”
His uncle, Harley Conely taught him the skills of butchering. When I asked Denny what he remembers most fondly about those times, he responded, “just being a kid. Playing on the farm and in the creeks, catching crawdads and tadpoles.” I asked if he thought about life beyond the green acres of Piney. He responded “no”.
Before graduation his Uncle Harley told him he knew Harold Witschey and could get him a summer job. Denny graduated May 31, 1975 and began as a carry out on June 1, 1975. Over the next couple years he tried finding other jobs, but with no luck. Then, Bill asked Denny to return and help with a big store sale. That was the beginning of his lifelong career.
The second part of my story begins with the birth of Rose Fankhouser in Wetzel County. Rose grew up on a working farm. Her father George, worked for Pennzoil during the day and on the farm the rest of the time. Her mother, Josephine raised the children and worked at home. Rose is the youngest of the three children.
I asked her what she remembered about growing up. She smiled as she explained, “Dad would take a football and tell us kids, let’s go pass some ball. We went out into the pasture and threw the ball for family enjoyment.” Come hay season, Rose’s job was to stack hay bales in the bed of a truck. She learned early that enjoyment comes from a family playing together and working together. A lesson that would serve her well throughout her life.
I asked Rose what were her expectations beyond high school. She explained, “I would have like to have gone to college and earned a secretarial degree.” But, I believe she knew money would be a concern. Although her family wanted for nothing, the family’s income would be stretched if she went off to college.
Rose knew if she wanted that college education, it would be up to her to earn the money. Rose’s sister, Stephanie told her of a cashier’s job at the store. Rose dressed in her finest clothes and with her high school transcript in hand went for an interview. Before she knew it, she was the newest cashier at the store. I asked if she had any thoughts about working in the grocery business for a lifetime. “No, I figured to put some money in my pocket, get a car and then see what the world held for me.”
Rose being the new cashier was assigned the 2:30 to 11 pm shift. Her off days were Tuesday and Wednesday. Rose’s socializing with friends and her playing on a softball team were in conflict with her new work schedule. Rose Fankhouser’s career at Witschey’s forever changed her life.
Now to the rest of the story as Paul Harvey would say. I asked Denny and Rose if they knew each other while in school. Denny is older than Rose and was in a different class. He told me Rose’s circle of friends (or click) were different than his. He recognized her, but that was about it. Then came the day at work when Denny and Larry Haught saw the new cashier, Rose walk by. There was something about her that interested Denny this time around. Rose was shy, but over time they began to talk. Denny would complete his work in the meat department and stroll up to where Rose was working. It wasn’t long before Wayne or Harold would tell them to get back to work.
I asked how long it took to go from googley eyes, to dating and then marriage. They both responded, “Not long”, followed by giggles from them both. They married September 17, 1977 in an outdoor ceremony up the right fork of Piney on a farm. There must have been a little magic in that can goods section that day, when Denny saw Rose. They have been married and working together for 44 years. An accomplishment like that requires two special people.
After a short honeymoon at Black Water Falls, they returned to the store. I asked when they knew the grocery business was going to be their lives. They responded at first it was just work, with little or no time to think of the future. But with hard work and dedication to the business, they were named co-managers. After that they began to feel like this was home and they could contribute to the stores betterment.
We talked for over an hour and I enjoyed hearing of their lives together. I knew it was time to finish with a final question. What event during your careers will you remember? They both said at the same time, “There have been so many.” Then Denny began talking about the 2004 flood. “Bill and I were waiting to see if the water would get into the store. The mayor called and told Bill it would be okay, the river had crested. A since of relief came over Bill as he sat back in his chair and took a bit of rest. Denny on the other hand sensed all was not right. He started down the back steps and heard water. The river was inside the building. Things began falling off shelves, cash registers made hissing sounds as the water shorted them out. It was total devastation.
As the water began receding, Rose arrived in a boat. She was followed by employees arriving by way of Witschey’s Navy. Rose explained, “Without hesitation employees began cleaning and getting the place sanitized. I can still hear people asking, ‘what else can I do Rose’?” With moist eyes she said softly, “they are our family, along with so many customers we have known over the years. Leaving them all will be hard in 3 days.”
Rose and Denny are special people who have dedicated their lives to serving every customer that came through the door. Along the way those customers became extended family and friends. Over 44 years they have watched babies grow into adults and have watched those adults have babies of their own. Adults grew older and some never returned. They will leave with thoughts of their old store knowing it was better for their having been there. But the life time of memories working at Witschey’s will always be theirs to keep. Best wishes to Denny and Rose, as I hope they become the biggest Mountaineer Fans in the Ohio Valley, at least that’s how I see it Through the Lens.