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Former Kmart co-workers share memories, say farewell

More than 100 celebrate time spent working together

Published: Monday, Jan. 20, 2014 1:15 a.m. CST • Updated: Monday, Jan. 20, 2014 12:59 p.m. CST
(Michael Krabbenhoeft/mkrabbenhoeft@saukvalley.com)
Kmart mascot Mr. Bluelight greets the former store employees at the Comfort Inn and Suites. Members of the employee committee plan to keep getting together, including a picnic this summer.
(Michael Krabbenhoeft/mkrabbenhoeft@saukvalley.com)
Shane Bielema, a former employee at the Kmart in Sterling, created a Facebook group for all the employees who worked at the Sterling store. Bielema also helped organize a farewell party for the former Kmart employees Saturday at the Comfort Inn and Suites in Dixon.
(Michael Krabbenhoeft/mkrabbenhoeft@saukvalley.com)
Photos of the employees and managers who have worked at the Sterling Kmart are displayed during a farewell party Saturday night at the Comfort Inn and Suites in Dixon.

DIXON – More than 100 former Kmart employees, and their friends, came together on Saturday at Dixon’s Comfort Inn and Suites to say farewell to a business they’d come to love.

The party was organized by an informal employee committee spearheaded by Shane Bielema, 26, who had worked at Kmart since October 2006.

Bielema created a Facebook group for all the past employees to share their memories, and the idea kind of took off from there, he said.

He described the bond between the workers as very close.

“Their families became my families,” Bielema said.

Kathy Lewis, 60, worked at Kmart from 1990 to 2004, and then came back this past year to help close up shop.

She celebrated her 40th birthday, her 50th birthday, and her 60th birthday as a Kmart employee.

On Oct. 13, workers were first told of the store’s closing. On its final day of business, employees were given the opportunity to leave at 8 p.m., Bielema said. But no one did. Every employee stayed as long as they could, not clocking out until 10:30.

Deb Tate, 56, started working at Kmart in 1974. Her children worked there, too.

“I don’t think it’s really hit anyone yet,” she said of the closing. “We were all very close.”

The party spanned two large rooms and was catered by Don’s Chicken and Seafood. Employees wore name tags that listed the dates of their employment and reminisced about the time they’d spent working together. Two large boards were covered with pictures taken over the years, and leaned against a wall in one of the rooms.

Chris Spotts, 59, has been a Kmart employee since 1977. For her, like Tate, working at Kmart was a family affair. Both of her daughters worked there, as did her husband, and a granddaughter.

“We were all sad,” Spotts said of learning about the closing. “We felt, betrayed because we didn’t expect it.”

The way things were managed changed a lot once Sears took over, employees said. And some of the things that contributed to that feeling of family went by the wayside. The staff used to have monthly breakfasts to celebrate employees’ birthdays, but that ended when Sears came in.

“Kmart used to do a lot of service acknowledgement,” Spotts said. “The longer we were there, the less that was there.”

“A lot of us lost our full-time jobs and went to part-time,” Tate said.

The party also included an awards ceremony, which included the naming an employee of the year, something Kmart used to do.

The award was given to Mary Newlon, who started working at Kmart the very first year it opened, when she was just a teenager.

“We decided to do it for her and make it special for her,” Bielema said. “She really helped raise me into my adulthood and was always a mother figure, a grandmother figure to a lot of us.”

Bielema and the other members of the employee committee have no intention of letting that family bond disappear. They’re already planning a picnic in the summertime.

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