Geneva Smith: Working Late

Joan Jackson
By Joan Jackson June 15, 2017 19:55

Geneva Smith

A bit mischievous, independent and ever-cheerful, Geneva Smith confesses to loving hard work, horses and helping others.

At 85, she is Tuolumne County’s oldest employee, still working 40-hour weeks as a housekeeper. She’s nearing 23 years of service after an earlier 34-year career with Gallo Glass in Modesto.

Smith also spends 30 to 40 hours a week as caregiver for a quadriplegic friend, then tends to 25 American Paint horses on her 12-acre Sonora ranch.

Her upbeat view on life and work can be summarized in two parts: “Life is good,” and “God wants you to have a clean wastebasket.”

“I love the people I work with,” says Smith, a great-great-grandmother with no plans to retire. “I think they’re entitled to a clean bathroom and an empty wastebasket.”

Smith typically starts her workday when her alarm sounds at 2:10 a.m. She tends her horses and dogs, then grabs a bowl of cereal and a banana. As she heads for her county job, she stops for a couple of doughnuts – one for breakfast and one for lunch.

From 4 a.m. until 12:30 p.m., she rotates among seven Tuolumne County buildings, including the new juvenile detention center, scrubbing bathrooms, cleaning kitchens, emptying trash, vacuuming and wiping down surfaces – making the workplace nice for her fellow county workers.

Wrapping up her duties, she returns to her ranch to tend the animals and check in with her son, Michael, who lives and helps at the ranch. Her grandson, David, stops by to work with the horses. Midafternoon she’s out the door again to help with household chores and wound care for her friend, Andie Woods, 47, paralyzed in a 1986 car accident. Smith also works at Woods’ house on weekends.

“Andie was my secretary for my rental houses and horse business,” says Smith. “She’s a whiz on the computer.”

Several years ago Andie’s health deteriorated so dramatically that the family was on the verge of calling in hospice. Andie asked Geneva if she could help. With other caregivers, Geneva has done a combination of wound care, hands-on healing and prayer.

“It’s been a miracle,” Geneva says of her friend’s continuing recovery from severe pressure sores.

Andie’s sister, April, calls Smith “an amazing role model” who also helped care for their mother, Mary, after a life-threatening infection from which she is still recovering.

“This lady can run circles around anyone half her age,” April Woods says. “My family has been through hell and back, but Geneva never left our sides in time of need.”

Smith’s approach to life is simple: “Physical exercise is good, I don’t take medications, and I believe in a supreme power, no matter what you name it. I like helping people.”

As mother to five grown children, and grandmother (great and great-great) to nearly 50, Smith believes hard-working moms are strong role models. “Mothers shouldn’t feel guilty about working,” she says. “It’s good for children. If you look in the Bible about work, you’ll find scripture after scripture.”

Her parents always had a strong work ethic. Her father, Dr. Charles Quammen, was a busy country doctor in Delavan, Minnesota. “He never slept,” she says. “The phone would ring, and he would go.”

As the only physician for many miles, Geneva’s father delivered most of the babies in the county, including one named Irene Andrews, who would become his wife 18 years later. He also delivered both of their daughters, Phyllis in 1928 and Geneva in 1931.

One of Geneva’s most vivid childhood memories is of staring out the front window one Sunday when she was 5. Dressed in her Sabbath best with big ribbons in her hair, she watched the family across the road – they were very poor, but the tumble of children seemed to be having a great time.

Geneva with two of her 25 American Paint horses

More than that, she envied them their pony. Geneva recalls wishing desperately that she was poor so that she too could have a pony.

“They say God always gives you the desire of your heart,” she laughs, “so I’ve been poor my whole life, but I have horses. Horses are my passion, my joy, my love.”

When Geneva was 8, her father died of typhoid fever. Her mother, scrambling to make ends meet, ran a hotel and later, two boarding houses. In the early 1940s her mother remarried, and the family expanded to include brother Michael and sister Kitty – to this day a dear friend, supporter and confidante.

Geneva’s first full-time job at 16 was as a clerk at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. She had just married for the first time. “I wasn’t old enough for the job,” she says, “so I lied and told them I was 18.”

She confesses she really wasn’t old enough for marriage either.

While working at the clinic she was finally able to afford her first horse, but gave him up when she and her husband went to California in the early 1950s. “We saw the postcards,” she says. “We thought everyone in California wore bathing suits and ate oranges.”

After working various jobs throughout the state, Geneva and her husband arrived in Modesto in 1959. Geneva had heard about the Gallo Glass plant during her stint at United Glass in Hayward, and decided to drop by. The managers told her they weren’t hiring. “I told them I had great references,” she says. At her polite urging, they made a couple of phone calls and at 4 p.m. that day Geneva went to work at Gallo.

Her job: toss out defective bottles and pack the good ones.

“Women couldn’t go anyplace at work,” Smith says with a shake of her head. “They couldn’t even get straight day jobs.”

They worked a rotating schedule of swing, night and day shifts – seven days of each. Geneva worked those shifts for the next 17 years, well into the 1970s.

In 1976, she became the first woman at Gallo to get a job in quality control. Her new role was to check cases of bottles to make sure the glass was good. Most of the men on the crew were less than welcoming, she recalls. After 11 years, Smith traded in her bottles for her final job at Gallo – maintenance oiler. Again the first woman in that role, she kept the plant equipment in top running condition.

Finances were often tight so she worked side jobs and took on other ventures, among them, raising squabs and rabbits. “I had five children to take care of, with no child support,” says Smith, by then twice divorced.

Her oldest son, Randy, is a truck driver in Turlock. One daughter, Robin, recently retired from Stanislaus County and another, Candy, works in Washington State. “They’re all hard workers,” she says. Her middle son died in his early 40s.

Over the years, Smith always tried to live on property where she could have horses. While working in Modesto in 1984, she bought her first ranch, a 10-acre spread inRiverbank, and began breeding American Paint horses.Not long after the purchase, her third husband left.

“God wants you to have a clean wastebasket,” says Smith

Looking at her options with a practical eye, Smith rented out her home and moved into a barn on the property. With a few upgrades, it became her home for the next six years.

After retiring from Gallo in 1991, Smith moved to a ranch off Lime Kiln Road near Sonora. In typical Geneva style, she went to work for Mervyn’s, Orchard Supply and Enki, the county’s mental health contractor. In 1994, the county hired her full time as housekeeper for the Health Department. There she met one of her heroes, County Health Officer Dr. Todd Stolp. “He worked day and night,” she says.

Stolp fondly recalls Geneva and her extraordinary energy. “When I’d see her there before sunrise, scrubbing away, it was better than any cup of coffee,” he says. “It would energize me for the rest of the day.”

This spring, Smith scored a long-hoped-for assignment as housekeeper for Tuolumne County’s new juvenile detention center. A loved one’s nightmare experience with juvenile justice in another county many years ago gives her a deep appreciation for the new building and program.

“I think this is going to be a revolutionized system,” says Smith, who has worked with Chief Probation Officer Linda Downey and center superintendent Mike Arndt on and off for years. “These people really love and care about the kids. I’m excited to be a part of that.”

Her coworkers won’t be throwing her a retirement party anytime soon. Even as her 86th birthday nears, Smith has no plans to stop. There are still horses to feed, wastebaskets to empty and people to help.

“I don’t care how old I am, I’m always going to work,” she says. “You’d better keep going while you can.”

Copyright © 2017 Friends and Neighbors Magazine

Joan Jackson
By Joan Jackson June 15, 2017 19:55
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