Phyllis Henrickson: St. Vinnie’s irreplaceable fixture
Author: SVdP Staff
Date: Wednesday, August 15 2012
Fixtures. St. Vinnie’s stores are full of them, and some are human. Among those, Phyllis Henrickson, master of pricing, cleaning and kindness, is irreplaceable.
Phyllis died last month at 91, having worked more than half her life for St. Vincent de Paul of Lane County.
She started in the mid-1950’s at SVdP’s first retail store, located in a bungalow-style house on West Broadway. Items were displayed on tables and draped over aluminum pipes. Money was secured in a muffin tin.
She was the third official retail clerk for an Agency that has since employed thousands.
“St. Vincent de Paul was Mom’s family,” said her daughter Rosemary Brady. “She loved everyone there.”
Some who experienced that love are still on the job and continue to sense Phyllis’s influence.
|Phyllis Henrickson's first assignment was as clerk at this St. Vincent de Paul store on West Broadway in Eugene. Circa 1953.
Executive Director Terry McDonald met her as a first-grader at St. Mary’s School. He said:
“I had missed my ride home. Being 7, I had no idea what to do next, but I did know that my dad ran the store a block away so I walked over and asked Phyllis what I should do. She kindly and calmly picked up the intercom phone to my Dad’s office west of town.
“After my dad told me to suck it up and walk home, I hung up the phone, almost as confused as before I called. As was her way, Phyllis smiled and assured me I could make it home on my own. “After all,” she said, “you are Mr. Mac’s son.”
“I made it home.”
Rosemary Brady said her mother went to great lengths to stretch a dollar and make a dollar. She drove all over town to get the best price on employee-funded coffee, hammered on pots with a hamburger press to flatten warped bottoms, and pored over books on antiques, glassware and china to determine their value. More than 25 years later, Stores Manager Leisha Wallace benefits from that research. She said:
“When I started working I asked, ‘How do know what’s collectable?’ They said, ‘You need to talk to Phyllis.’ I would take her boxes of glassware. She’d go through them and say, ‘This is, this isn’t…’
“She taught me a lot about reproductions. It can be hard to tell what’s real, but it’s all in feeling the bottom. On a real piece, the bottom should have a lot of wear.
“There was no eBay then. It was all off the top of her head.”
Phyllis is lengendary for taking donated socks home to darn so people in need wouldn’t receive holey socks. She used old toothbrushes to clean dressing-room corners and dish soap to wash baking potatoes. It’s said even the ice cubes in the break-room fridge carried the scent of bleach.
Leisha Wallace’s enduring memory is of Phyllis hunched over a table covered with Tonka toys, cleaning each as she might a precious heirloom.
“There was nothing Phyllis could not clean,” she said. “I took her a tablecloth with age stains, maybe from a cedar chest. Laundry soap didn’t work.
“Phyllis knew immediately that it was Damask. She got the stain out with lemon juice, and we sold it for $75. That was 20 years ago!
Eventually Leisha became Phyllis’s boss. Their relationship had its moments.
One involved lunch. Phyllis observed that some employees were so far down on their luck they couldn’t, or didn’t, bring lunch. Warehouse Manager Gayla Halleman picks up the story:
“Phyllis's kind heart couldn't take that. She started bringing peanut butter, jelly and bread so they could make sandwiches. Then someone must have said tuna would be good, and soon she was mixing up two or three cans of tuna with mayo and pickles. Well, lettuce would be good, too, so…
“This evolved into spaghetti and lil smokies, and relish plate and dip, and.... All of this came out of her own pocket!”
It amounted to $75 per week by the time Leisha Wallace shut it down, declaring there was no free lunch at Seneca. Phyllis was annoyed by that and for a time referred to Leisha only as, “That Woman.”
Another rough patch involved Phyllis’s habit of working beyond the end of her shift, particularly when assigned to the store at 5th and High, near her lifelong neighborhood.
“She’d always tell me she was just puttering and volunteering,” Leisha said. “I’d say, ‘The law says you can’t volunteer doing your normal job.’
“I went in there one day. Phyllis was supposed to have gotten off at 2, and there she was, puttering. I made her go home, drove her to her house. She pouted for a week over that.”
Thirty years ago Human Resources Director Carol Belmer managed a store at 11th and Oak where Phyllis was a clerk. She recalled:
“I had a live-in boyfriend, and we had parted ways. The parting was such that I was unable to retrieve any of my belongings.
“I told Phyllis that most of the stuff didn't matter to me, but I lamented losing my Betty Crocker Cookbook. The next day Phyllis went out and bought one for me. During that hard time it was a wonderful gesture and really helped to pick me up.
“To this day I still have and frequently use that cookbook. I will never give it up.”
Development Director Rebecca Larson did give up her lucky fundraising tiara, with which Phyllis was crowned queen while being lauded with carols at a company Christmas party. Rebecca said:
“I thought the tiara was a loan, but Phyllis loved it so much and wore the rhinestones with such grace that I couldn't bear to ask for it back. I never got it back, and I sure wish I had it now.”
Rosemary Brady recalls that her mother loved company parties and seasonal decorating. With the annual company tuna bake coming up, followed by back-to-school and Halloween, SVdP’s oldtimers will remember the gentle colleague who spun stories of the Great Depression, WWll and "old Eugene," and took Jazzercise well into her seventies. The photo above was taken at 5th and High in 2003. The broken arm, taped glasses, and black eye were remnants of a spill Phyllis took while delivering goodies to an ill neighbor.
St. Vinnie’s oldtimers miss Phyllis and appreciate the smiles and stories her name generates. We know she’s puttering and volunteering in a better place.