DIXON – His hands are the strong, sure hands of a working man, smooth and cool from so much time in water, with long, thin fingers knob-knuckled with age. His grip, though, like the man himself, is gentle.
But his hands aren't the first thing you notice when you meet Elwood Koch. First, there's the sweet, friendly smile, and those blue, blue, Culver's blue eyes that he fixes on you from behind his gold-rimmed glasses, all his attention focused on you.
Koch, who may be the oldest employee working at any of the restaurant chain's 500 or so sites, turns 90 Saturday. Friday, his colleagues and customers in Dixon celebrated the milestone with balloons and streamers, and a red-and-white banner wishing him a happy birthday.
As his nametag proclaims, Elwood has been "True blue since 2010."
He calls this his third career. His first was raising dairy cattle and four children – two boys, two girls – on a farm south of Polo. He and his wife, Elenor, did that for 30 years, then Elwood was a janitor at Flex-O-Glass for 28 years.
Eighty-five was in his rearview mirror when the Flex-O-Glass folks suggested it might be time to retire. "They didn't want me to die with my boots on," he said. He loved that job, "made a lot of great friends there," but agreed to hang up his broom.
That retirement lasted about a month. Then Elwood, a regular diner at Culver's (chopped steak with mushrooms and chocolate custard with cashews is his favorite), asked owner Jason Rowe, "Can you use an 86-year-old that's a little bit deaf?"
"I didn't want to sit around anymore."
Rowe, a friend of Elwood's, hired him on the spot.
Now, Elwood works Mondays and Fridays from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m., sanitizing the cooking area, the table tops, and the bathrooms. He takes the booths apart – yes, takes them apart – and vacuums inside and all around. He scrapes the gum off the undersides of the tables. When it gets busy, he helps wait on customers.
In the summer, he also works Wednesdays. Often, he's the first person there, said Kayla Halfacre, Culver's general manager.
"This is just a great place to work," he said. "I've enjoyed every bit of it. Everybody treats me with dignity."
Dignity, yes, and true affection, even love. No one says Elwood's name without breaking into a smile; eyes soften and everyone, no matter their age, turns into a doting grandchild in his presence.
"He's just the sweetest guy," Halfacre said, adding that he knows all the employees' names, and gets to know them all individually.
"He has all our hearts," team member Diane Novak said.
Technically, this may be Elwood's fourth career. His first was serving as an Army Signal Corps cryptographer in World War II, with Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower's Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force, first at the Palace of Versailles in France, then in Frankfurt, Germany.
All information about what was happening in the war came through the headquarters, all the death and destruction and misery funneled through the corps, but thankfully, "I didn't have to shoot at anybody."
On Veterans and Memorial days, he wears his brown ETO jacket, like the one Eisenhower made famous; it still fits his thin frame, although it is a little harder to zip up, he said, patting his tummy.
There's another milestone ahead. Elwood and Elenor will be married 64 years in May. "She's been a wonderful person," he said, gushing just a bit. "I owe my longevity to her. She's a great cook."
In typical humble Elwood Koch fashion, he also takes no credit for the hard work and sweet disposition that has taken him so far in life, and brought him so many friends.
"I'm here merely by the grace of God."