MARYVILLE — Jim Watson is just your typical hardworking guy. Five days a week he gets up in the morning, cranks up his Ford sedan and drives the 20 miles from his home in Barnard to the Maryville Hy-Vee supermarket, where he puts in several hours as a courtesy clerk.
It's only a part-time job, 20 hours a week, but Watson earns his paycheck with a solid, physical day spent carrying sacks up to the front of the store, bagging groceries and helping customers cart or carry purchases out to the parking lot.
But there is one thing that sets this quick-smiling man apart from his co-workers. Most of them are less than half his age. Watson turned 90 last week, and, after 13 years as a Hy-Vee employee, he doesn't appear ready to slow down anytime soon.
On Monday, his store colleagues hung a big "Happy 90th Birthday" banner over the dining area and served up birthday cake and two huge piles of doughnuts to employees and customers alike.
The party took place a little late because Watson was off for a couple of days during which he attended a St. Louis Cardinals home baseball game with family.
Mayor Glenn Jonagan arrived after Watson had already spent a half-hour greeting friends, customers and well-wishers and read a proclamation declaring July 9 as Jim Watson Day. The framed certificate praised his "youthful energy and strong work ethic."
That's something of an understatement, according to Store Director Chris Wiltfong, who noted that Watson's job requires him to work both inside and outside the store, and that the recent brutal heat wave hadn't appeared to slow him down.
Wiltfong said Watson will sometimes mention that he makes a special effort to "help take care of the old people," customers who are often a decade or two younger than he is.
"I think he's already retired twice (from other jobs)," Wiltfong said. "It's a pretty special thing."
Still, while Watson is certainly special to co-workers and customers alike, he is not exactly unique within the Hy-Vee corporate family. Wiltfong said the grocery chain, which employs 60,000 people at 230 stores in eight states, currently has 13 workers who have either turned 90 or will do so this year. The chain's oldest employee, a produce demonstrator who works 18 hours a week, is 101.
Drawing a paycheck into one's tenth decade is not exactly common, and Watson looks a good 15 years younger than he is.
Short and slender with close-cropped hair and lively eyes, he said he stays on the job because, "It gives me something to do, and it makes me feel good." He added that the best thing about his work is meeting customers, many of whom are old friends.
On the job a quarter-century after traditional retirement age, Watson — with a loud laugh — says he credits his longevity to "good clean living." He adds, a little more seriously, that he always made sure to stay active as a younger man through activities like fast-pitch softball. His regimen these days, however, amounts to showing up for work.
"I get enough exercise here," he says, gesturing toward the grocery aisles.
As for diet, Watson cheerfully claims to limit his intake to "eating everything in front of me." Except for the rare special-occasion cigar, he said he has never smoked.
Born in Clermont, Iowa in 1922, Watson went to high school in Mount Ayr, Iowa. Later on, he was a hog buyer for a packing plant in St. Joseph and also farmed. He spent several seasons following the wheat harvest, moving across the Great Plains driving a combine.
These days, when not at work, he lives quietly at home with his wife, Marcine, whom he married when he was 30 and she was 20. The couple raised four children.
But on Monday, after blowing out some candles and enjoying a large slice of cake, Watson shook a few more hands and went back to work.
"I've always enjoyed it here," he said. "The people have always been nice."