LANSING, Mich. — For those who think retail is a dead-end job, meet Betty Collette, who retired last week from J.C. Penney after 67 years.
She started out in 1950 in Welch, W.Va., as a divorced single mom with a 4-year-old, she said. Her first stop was as a saleswoman in women's fashion where the expensive dresses were $2.79 and $14.99.
She's 91 now and always has worn high heels — including to her retirement party Friday after her shift.
"My mother never thought of work as work," said that 4-year-old boy, now Judge William Collette of Ingham County Circuit Court. "She has always enjoyed working, and it has been a huge part of her life. She would get up, go to work, wait on people and enjoy seeing customers. This was kind of like other people going to an exercise club or something like that."
She's not the oldest nor longest serving retail worker. Rose Syracuse, then 92, retired in September 2012 from Macy's after 73 years at the same New York store, according to the New York Daily News. And Loren Wade, 103, was working in the lawn and garden department of Walmart in Winfield, Kansas, when Chain Store Age caught up with him in July 2015.
But such longevity at one company, especially in the service industry that's often considered a short stop on a career in another field, is rare if not unique.
Betty Collette — known to customers as Miss Betty — moved to Michigan, managed two successful departments and in 1961 when a woman heading a store was ground breaking, she was chosen to be a store manager. In that year J.C. Penney (JCP) selected five women, one from each region, out of 1,700 stores, to be managers.
"I was chosen from the eastern region to be the first woman in management for a man’s position," Collette said. "I've come a long way."
Also around that time, she was diagnosed with cancer.
"We figured she was going to her death bed," William Collette said. "It was at a time when most people died. There weren’t a lot of cures. Miraculously enough, she had surgery at Ford Hospital, and she has been around all these years."
Soon Betty Collette was traveling to New York as a buyer for the stores.
"It was hard to do because people just didn't buy expensive dresses back then," Betty Collette said. "We're talking years ago and $39 to $69 was expensive back then."
She worked at the downtown Lansing store, which had the first escalator in town, in the heyday of department stores, she said. She also was at work June 14 and 15, 1967, when race riots across the USA extended to Lansing and a fire broke out among the nylon clothes in the dress department.
"I saw it and put it out," she said. "I should never have done it. It could have really caught me on fire. ...
"I saw this smoke, white smoke. It was a different smoke, just billowing," she said. "And I ran and grabbed some dresses and kept throwing dresses on it to smother it. That was the scariest thing."
Betty Collette worked in Welch for six years; downtown Lansing for 21 years; back in West Virginia for a couple of years; in Novi, Mich., at Twelve Oaks Mall store; then at Lansing Mall.
After 40 years, she wanted to retire.
"When I decided to retire, the company was slow about writing me out," she said. "They didn’t get me written out, and so I just continued working" — for 27 more years.
She went back to sales in 1989 and has been on the floor ever since.
"I love it better than all the other things I've done," Betty Collette said.
She will miss her customers. As she broke the news to them, she said many had tears in their eyes.
"I always find it absolutely amazing that when I go to big, family extended parties with people I've never met, they know about Betty," said her boss, Karen Brown. "When I say I'm the general manager at J.C. Penney, the first thing out of their mouths is 'Do you know Miss Betty? Is Miss Betty still there?' I cannot tell you how many people I have met outside of the workplace that love her."
And she loved what she was doing.
"I would have left long ago if I didn't love it," Betty Collette said. "It seems like yesterday. It's been a wonderful journey. The company has been so good to me. I can't complain one bit."
Follow Vickki Dozier on Twitter: @vickkiD