- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 21, 2017

ANDERSON, S.C. (AP) - At times, her job as hostess at Anderson’s Cracker Barrel Old Country Store requires Ilse Whaley to rearrange some of the dining room furniture.

Coworker Cain Moore learned quickly that she’d rather not have help.

“When I saw that she needed another chair, my natural reaction was to get it for her,” said Moore. “But she wouldn’t let me do it; she took it out of my hand.

“In her mind, she needs to be pulling her own weight,” said Moore, a West Pelzer resident. “I think she doesn’t want to be a burden on someone else.”

Whaley, 91, has been pulling her own weight, all 110 pounds of it, since she began working as a teenager in pre-World War II Germany. Although a recent heart issue has forced her to cut hours to one day a week, her work ethic remains strong - and inspires crewmates who are often seven decades younger.

“It’s nice to come to work and have somebody with you that is so excited to be there,” said Caitlain Scogins, 21. “She enjoys coming to work every day she’s scheduled, and you can tell it. It’s like she brings the place together.”

Cracker Barrel Associate Manager Ashleigh Bratek, who is usually on duty each Sunday when Whaley serves as hostess, also marvels at Whaley’s attitude toward her job.

“She definitely takes her work seriously,” Bratek said of Whaley. “She runs circles around the 20-year-olds. She’s amazing.”

Bratek describes Whaley as “all business, but at the same time, she finds a way to hug everybody. She’ll do anything we ask, and she’s always begging for more hours. She used to work 5-6 days a week, and she’d work seven days a week if we allowed it.”

Whaley began a lighter work schedule recently, her first on the job since a bout with congestive heart failure forced her into the hospital for a week over the Christmas season. She’s now working only on Sundays, sharing hugs with the after-church crowd in the 2-4 p.m. time slot.

“She wanted to come back the first week after she was out of the hospital, but the doctor wouldn’t allow it,” said Sherry Stoner, a friend who visits Whaley at her apartment on a regular basis. She drives Whaley to work each Sunday, and makes sure she has taken her medicine.

She gets resistance on the latter.

“I hate taking any medicine,” Whaley said. “I’d rather have a glass of Merlot and some dark chocolate. I take dark chocolate twice a day, every day.”

She’s also struggling with the idea of resting much more often than working.

“For Ilse, the worst part about being in the hospital was missing work. Every day she was there, she’d say, ‘We close at 2 o’clock on Christmas Eve,’ and tell me what hours the crew was working every day,” Stoner said. “She lives and breathes the Cracker Barrel.”

Whaley, who recently agreed to let Cracker Barrel use her image in training manuals, concurs.

“It’s a wonderful restaurant,” said Whaley, a waitress at various restaurants in north Georgia in her younger days who started working at the Cracker Barrel as a hostess in 1998. “I’m thankful to be allowed to be part of it.”

Over the years, Whaley’s old-school, get-‘er-done approach has been a model for younger workers.

“You’ve got to work if you want respect. The customer is the priority,” she said recently, as she enjoyed her favorite meal - meat loaf with corn and pinto beans. “You can’t just show them a chair and throw a menu on a table.

“I like it when I see waitresses take good care of customers, when they keep eye on the kitchen and keep an eye on the table,” Whaley said in a German accent that has waned over the years. “We have good ones here that do that.”

Whaley, who has a son in Atlanta and a grandson in Chicago, admits that much of her love for Cracker Barrel is social; she doesn’t need the money. When she shops at the Ingles on S.C. 24, where she loves the deli food, she’s known as “Miss Cracker Barrel,” because she often talks about the diner.

Whaley, who fled Germany in 1948 and endured the death of her husband in 1986, refers to the Cracker Barrel job as a chapter in a life “that has been filled with miracles.

“God has given me so much,” she said. “He lets me find people who keep helping me.”

___

Information from: Anderson Independent-Mail, https://www.andersonsc.com

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

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