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Stitch and save

Saturday, March 24, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 3:06 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008
Deatra McGary poses in her home where she has equipment to do embroidery work. McGary works part-time at Bernina Sewing & Embroidery Center, a business she once owned.

Deatra McGary jokes that, for the perfect retirement, she needs only one thing.

“I’m looking for a retired Army man,” she says, laughing. “I really am.”

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Together, they would stay in guest housing at military bases in exotic locales, using them as launching pads to travel the world. Top on McGary’s list: Italy.

But until and unless her decorated hero shows up, the 62-year-old isn’t sure she’ll ever be able to afford full retirement.

McGary spent 28 years running the Bernina Sewing and Embroidery Center in Columbia. She started it in 1978, recently divorced and with an 11-year-old degree in education from MU in hand.

She sold the business last May to longtime co-worker and friend Zede Donohue. Her goal is to devote her days to volunteer work, gardening, cooking and traveling. But she still needs money coming in, so for now she’s back working at the Bernina shop, where she’s set up her own part-time embroidery service.

“I wouldn’t mind not being gainfully employed if I didn’t have to, but I would still be doing things,” she says. “I just didn’t start putting money away early enough.”

While many people have to wait until the end of their careers to indulge their retirement fantasies, McGary got an early taste.

While getting her education degree from MU in the late 1960s, McGary worked at the old Daniel Boone Hotel. And one night, she met Ed Wayland, a semiretired Columbia attorney who was more than 20 years her senior. The attraction was strong, but McGary had signed up to teach kindergarten in St. Louis after she graduated.

She taught for one year, then broke her contract.

“He gave me an engagement ring and I decided ‘No, I think I’ll retire,’” she remembers, laughing.

The two made Columbia their primary home, but spent winters in Arizona and traveled on a whim. Wayland wanted to see all 50 state capitals. If the leaves were turning shades of reds and yellows, they would go to Maine and stay in a bed-and-breakfast. They visited Traverse City, Mich., and Biloxi, Miss., in the spring, where they could be snowed in or sunning on the beach.

“He had a good idea of how to spend life,” she says. “It was like I took my retirement early.”

But after almost a decade of marriage, the couple divorced, and the 33-year-old found herself 11 years out of college and forced to start a career.

So, McGary took stock of businesses she thought she’d enjoy. She had been sewing since she was 11, and when she went shopping for a new machine, she learned there was a need for a high-quality sewing machine shop in Columbia.

She borrowed her parents’ car and went to the bank to ask for a $5,000 loan.

“It was a miracle they would lend a woman money,” she says. “I had no collateral. He said ‘do you have a car?’ and I said ‘no’ and he said ‘well how’d you get here?’”

The banker agreed to give her the funding and McGary opened Bernina Sewing and Embroidery Center in February 1978. She remembers telling her father at one point that she was too old to start over.

“He told me ‘You’re not starting over, you’re just moving on,’ ” she says.

The shop moved through a few locations before settling in the space owned by her ex-husband, where it has been based for the past 15 years, at 12 S. Second St., tucked behind the corner stores at Providence and Broadway.

She never worried the business would fail, but during a low-business month such as one February, when someone returned an expensive machine, she couldn’t break even.

“There were some real iffy times,” she says. “Not that we didn’t think we could make it, but more that we ate less.”

But other than the initial loan that started Bernina, McGary never borrowed money.

“I never got myself in that box,” she says. “That takes away your freedom.”

After her divorce, when McGary began handling her own assets, she grew more interested in finance. But that education came too late to save much for retirement. If she had it to do over, she says, she would have started saving “early, early, early.”

After 28 years of giving most of her time and energy to the business, McGary sold it last year.

“I jokingly say friends had children and I had a business,” she says.

Now she spends a few hours each day in the shop doing machine embroidery for customers, while taking on a variety of projects. Before the Christmas holidays, she stitched 30 personalized green-and-red flannel Christmas stockings for two mid-Missouri groups of soldiers stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

She says she’d like to be able to spend more time with her parents, who live in Columbia and are in their mid-80s, while she still can. She wants to volunteer more and travel.

Her embroidery work at Bernina lets her help with the business, but gives her the flexibility to take time off when she wants. And if the embroidery business doesn’t pan out, she says she wouldn’t hesitate to look for jobs elsewhere, such as in the customer service industry.

“If I left, I’d do something totally different,” she says. “It’s all going to work out. Any day, anything can happen.”

For example: McGary was in Italy last September, as part of a trip to Europe, when she learned her mutual funds had skyrocketed. “I made more money than my trip cost me,” she says. “That’s still a wonder to me.

“If things like that happen periodically, then I can take more trips. But if they don’t, I’ve had a good life. I won’t go down fussing that I didn’t get enough.”


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