Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The Heart of Town

How one man proved that small kindnesses add up.
By Harry Stein

My family first encountered Wally Urtz, the gentle, self-effacing manager of our local supermarket, on a blustery day nearly 20 years ago just after we'd moved to Hastings-on-Hudson, a New York City suburb. As my wife made her way to the store's exit, juggling her groceries and two small children, Wally hustled up beside her. "I'll get those, young lady," he said brightly, taking her bags and leading her to the parking lot. Now that may seem like no big deal -- except that these days things like that so seldom happen.

Our story, it turned out, was typical. Among Hastings's 8,000 residents, almost everybody had at least one about Wally's decency and generosity. There were the times he'd reach into his own pocket when someone was short; the times he'd show small kindnesses to someone who'd just lost a loved one or who was in the midst of divorce; the many, many times he'd put himself out for older people.

"He just appreciated that when people get older, their lives get smaller -- they don't drive, their friends have passed on -- and how much it means to be treated warmly," one woman, Kathy Dragan, said. "When my mother was in her 80s, it was a treat for her to go to the store. Wally would call out to the butcher and say, 'You give her whatever attention she needs.' She'd tell me, 'He's kinder to me than some people I've known all my life.' "

Yet few of us fully understood what Wally meant to the civic life of our community -- until he was assigned to another store 20 miles away. In its unfathomable corporate wisdom, the Food Emporium chain had decided to replace 67-year-old Wally after 26 years due to "operational issues related to operating a store the size of [the one in] Hastings."

No one could believe it. Word spread quickly. Neighbors called each other seeking solace. Some plotted strategies for bringing Wally back and staged protest marches outside the store. Others flooded the local newspaper with angry letters. The mayor took up the cause. Even the police tried to set things right.

A grocer seems an unlikely figure to set off such an emotional outpouring. That he did shows the remarkable effect Wally -- a man of endless warmth and good humor -- had on people.

The police say no one was more helpful -- that at Halloween, he was the only merchant they never had to tell not to sell eggs and shaving cream to teens, and that his keen knowledge of the town made him especially adept at spotting criminals. "He's probably made more arrests than anyone who works here," Lt. David Bloomer said with a laugh. "Not just shoplifters, but people who'd show up with stolen credit cards. He was uncanny."

Bloomer added that "we'd often have kids who needed a job -- not honor students, kids in trouble, who'd been before the judge -- and Wally would hire them every time. Nine times out of ten, it probably wouldn't work out, but he never hesitated."

Betty Hudson, pastor of the Grace Episcopal Church, agreed: "He was always willing to take risks on people. He used to say to me, 'You and I are in the same business -- the people business.' "

One story I heard about Wally stands out: Once, in the 1980s, an elderly woman shopper, unapologetically racist, refused to be checked out by the only cashier on duty, a 16-year-old black girl. Wally gave the woman a choice: be checked out by the girl or not at all. But the teen, badly shaken and in tears, said she couldn't work the register. Wally took her aside.

"You're not going to let her get the best of you," he said. "There are some tough challenges in life. Learn to deal with them." Then he stood by the girl as, laboriously, item by item, she rang up the older woman's purchases.

That girl, Nicole Gamble, is a prosecutor in Manhattan now. When I told her about Wally's transfer, she was stunned. "How could they do that?" she exclaimed. "Don't they realize how rare that kind of character is?"

Rabbi Edward Schecter of Hastings's Temple Beth Shalom said: "In his quiet way, he was a towering moral figure in our community. I don't know that there are any others -- no elected officials, no clergy. In Jewish mystical tradition, the question is asked, 'Why does God sustain the world in light of all the evil in it?' And the answer is, 'It's because of the 36 righteous.' Anyone who thinks he might be one of the righteous by definition is not. But Wally -- he is one of the righteous."

As if to confirm the rabbi's view, Wally himself sounded baffled about all the controversy. "All I was doing is my job," he said, crediting his parents and his deep religious faith for making him what he is. "You're selling groceries, but what really matters is your relationships with people. The way people are in this town, that was easy."

Sadly, the push to bring Wally back failed, though not totally: He was assigned to a store closer to his home -- the store where 40 years ago he met his wife, when he was a clerk and she a checker. "Don't worry, I'm doing fine," he said. "If you treat people right, things usually work out for the best."

Sociologists and academics like to bemoan the loss of community in daily life. In his book Bowling Alone, for instance, Robert D. Putnam fondly recalls "the grocery store or five-and-dime on Main Street, where faces were familiar," and laments how today's "suburban shopping experience does not consist of interaction with people embedded in a common social network."

For those lucky enough to know him, Wally Urtz was a one-man antidote to all that.

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