Still working at 92by Dan Olson, Minnesota Public Radio
Lots of people look forward to work. But 74 years? That's how long 92-year-old Lydia Lunney has been working in the restaurant business. Every weekday she arrives at Macy's River Room restaurant in downtown St. Paul for her three-hour shift. Lunney says she works because she loves her job.
St. Paul, Minn. — On a recent day, Lunney is immaculately dressed in black, pinstriped slacks and jacket for her duties as hostess. With a megawatt smile and a gentle greeting, she quickly leads a steady stream of diners to their tables.
Lunney has been the subject of several media accounts of her workplace longevity, but she doesn't seek the spotlight. She's welcoming, but not wordy, with a visitor who observes 74 years is an amazing amount of time on the job -- with most of it on her feet.
"Yes, and I wore high heels most of the time. I don't now, but I did," she says.
Lydia Lunney was born in l915 on a farm near Pine City in east central Minnesota. She had seven sisters. Two died at birth.
The family lost the farm in the Great Depression and moved to St. Paul. Lunney's father died when she was 8. Lunney says her mother made a living running a rooming house.
When she was 16, Lunney says, her after school job was her at her uncle's restaurant near the state Capitol.
"I got out of school at 2:30 and worked until 8," she says.
Lunney says her uncle taught her what amounts to the golden rule of running a restaurant.
"'Be nice to people and they'll be nice to you.' That was his motto," she says.
Lunney is more than nice. Her boss, Claudia Piper, the manager of Macy's River Room, says Lunney is smart.
"The main thing that makes you successful, and what Lydia has done her whole life, is to organize her time and organize her thoughts very well," Piper says.
Lydia Lunney started in the restaurant business even before there was a glass ceiling. Claudia Piper says women wanting to rise to management jobs faced a locked door.
"If you bring what she has nowadays, she would have gone to the top. Having that work ethic back then didn't necessarily take her to the top because she was a woman," Piper says.
Lydia Lunney says she wanted to go to college but there wasn't enough money. So she worked in restaurants and along the way married the busboy, her late husband Charles Lunney. They were married 51 years.
Lunney tried retirement not long ago -- it lasted four months.
"What do I do at home all the time? I have no children and most of my friends are dead," Lunney says.
Many of Lunney's new friends are her coworkers, quite a bit younger, including Mona Ahlf, a Macy's River Room server with eight years experience.
Ahlf says the example of Lydia Lunney, working at 92 -- not because she has to but because she likes her job -- has tempered Ahlf's eager anticipation of retirement.
"I can really see what it does for Lydia and how young it keeps her," says Ahlf. "I can kind of see being like Lydia too, although my husband wouldn't want to hear that because he definitely wants to retire."
Lunney admits her eyesight isn't what it used to be, but she brushes off talk about health issues with a laugh.
"Can't complain. Wouldn't do any good. Nobody wants to listen to me anyway. No, I really have been very fortunate," she says.
Lydia Lunney's 74 years in the food business is unusual. The outlook is she may be the leading edge of a trend, although admittedly at the outside edge.
Minnesota demography projections show as the state's population ages and as the demand for workers continues, the number of women in the workplace who are 75 and older will nearly triple the next two decades.
- Morning Edition, 12/05/2007, 7:24 a.m.