MOUNT VERNON — When Ernie Hill retires on Friday, he'll leave a void that will be hard to fill.
For 23 years, Ernie has been a mainstay at Kroger, bagging groceries, cleaning carts, sweeping the parking lot, and cleaning. And talking up a storm with customers.
“That's a long time, isn't it?” he said with a grin when Knox Pages caught up with him on Tuesday.
“Everybody loves Ernie. He will be missed at Kroger,” said Cindi Strawser, Ernie's service and support administrator at Knox County DD. “I think a lot of people come into Kroger just to see Ernie. He always has a story to tell.”
On Tuesday, the story was about his mother's chickens.
From her position behind the customer service desk, Gayle Palmer has had a front-row seat watching Ernie in action.
“I have worked with him the entire time. He is very much a social butterfly,” she said. “Everybody loves him. The kids love him.”
At 77 years old, Ernie is as healthy as a horse, despite his passion for sweets and coffee, especially Starbucks.
“People have brought him lunches and all kinds of food,” said Palmer. “We have a morning huddle every day at 9:30. Ernie comes in and fills his pockets with snacks, and then goes back out and does carts.”
Tuesday, one customer presented Ernie with packages of Reese Cups. Another customer, who's bantered for years with Ernie about Ernie's love for chocolate milk, plans to give him some as a retirement present. Even fire department personnel bring Ernie snacks.
Even though he's put in 20-plus hours a week for more than two decades, Ernie has rarely, if ever, missed a day of work.
“In the nine years I have known him, he hasn't missed a day,” said Strawser.
“He's been a staple here for 23 years. He's been a pleasure to work with, but it's time for him to relax,” said Palmer.
As he heads into retirement, however, it doesn't look like Ernie plans to slow down. What's the first thing he's going to do Monday morning when he doesn't have to report to work?
“Laundry,” he said matter-of-factly.
After that, it's trimming hedges, taking care of his trees, and mowing his lawn. He will also attend adult day care at New Hope Industries, where he'll stay active with contract work, volunteering, and probably playing his guitar for seniors.
“I don't think Ernie knows how not to work,” said Strawser. “I am confident he will continue to stay busy.
“He's very busy with his church,” she continued. “He takes great pride in his yard. We know that whatever he does, he will be successful.”
What will Ernie miss the most when he retires?
“The whole thing. I've been here 23 years.”
Our team at Knox Pages wishes Ernie well in his retirement.