The Herald, Sharon, Pa.

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June 8, 2014

A slice of life

Man carves out a living as longtime grocer

FARRELL — If you like your job, going to work is fun. That’s how Paul Bender looks at the trade he started to learn about 75 years ago on the West Hill of Sharon. At age 86, he’s still at it.

Only the oldest of old-timers can remember the names of some of the stores he worked in over the years,  mostly as a meat cutter or department manager, before settling in at Farrell Golden Dawn where he works about a dozen hours a week.

Streamline, Ferrara Brothers Golden Dawn, Sharon Coal and Ice and Donnelly’s Golden Dawn all employed Bender at one time or another. He worked out of town for a while at a Food Lion in Virginia.

The United States had not yet entered World War II when Bender began trying to earn a few bucks for himself and his family.

He started at Quaker Groceries, a now-defunct regional chain of neighborhood stores. Bender, whose family lived on Logan Avenue, got his first job at the store in Sharon where Davis Street and Logan intersect with South Irvine Avenue.

Since then, he worked at six other groceries and the “locker plant” of the former Sharon Coal and Ice Co. that did custom butchering for farmers before he wound up in Farrell.

“Howard Polonus was the meat manager at Quaker, and he was looking for somebody to be a stock boy and clean up after him,” Bender said. “I was 11 years old, going on 12. I went in there and learned how to slice lunch meat and do odd jobs in the store.”

For working four hours after school and all day Saturday, Bender was paid a dollar and a quarter – a week.

“That was good money,” he said with a chuckle, “especially when you could go to the Gable Theater down here and see a movie for a nickel.”

He followed Polonus a few years later to Kroger’s which then had a store on East State Street at Jefferson Avenue across from what was known then as Christian H. Buhl Hospital.

He did any job he was asked to do in the store.

“There was no self service in those days. Produce was in the aisle, but groceries were behind the counter,” Bender said. “Customers would ask for what they wanted, and I would go get it.”

A good stock boy had to have a head for figures to keep a running mental tally of the customer’s order.

“There was no adding machine,” Bender said. “You had to use your head, and you’d better be right.”

After a couple of years in the Navy at the end of World War II, Bender worked at Streamline Grocery on Budd Street. He moved on to Sharon Coal and Ice whose operation would be unfamiliar to most modern consumers.

“Farmers brought their sides of beef or hogs. We would cut it up and process it for them,” Bender recalled. “We had a smokehouse there too, and we would wrap and freeze meat for them. They would store it in lockers they rented. In deer season, they would bring their deer in, and we would skin them out and cut them up. I learned a lot at that place.”

Shoppers these days can’t buy beef or pork the way they could during Bender’s early days in the business.

Meat comes mostly cut up and packed in boxes, needing only a trim, portioning and packaging to be offered for sale. That’s true at grocery stores including Farrell Golden Dawn where Bender is a favorite of coworkers like Barb Wilson.

“He’s just so nice,” she said. “He’s a sweetheart.”

But he has a sly sense of humor honed over years of working as a meat cutter and meat department manager supervising other employees.

Sam Beers, the youngest member of the meat department crew, didn’t get a chance to answer a question about what he had learned while working with the father of four who has seven grandchildren.

“Nothing,” Bender joked.

Beers smiled in a way that showed he was used to such teasing and replied, “he’s showed me a couple things here and there.”

Bender, who lives in Hubbard, had been married to his wife Genevieve for almost 60 years when she died five years ago. He said his job is a way to stay active and maintain his good health. He added that he has always enjoyed working with his co-workers during seven decades in the grocery business.

“I have worked for a lot of good people,” he said. “You’ve got to have fun while you work. You get ticked off at people now and then, but that’s part of life. I enjoy working, I really do. I must like it or I wouldn’t still be doing it.”

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