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'I can't imagine working any other place'

Irene Strombom counts change for a purchase while working at Lark Drugs in Guerneville on Thursday, March 21, 2013. Strombom is retiring after working at the store for over 65 years.

CONNER JAY/Press Democrat
Published: Sunday, March 24, 2013 at 4:26 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, March 25, 2013 at 12:50 p.m.

In Guerneville, only ol' man river is a more constant and admired presence than the steady, playful lady who's worked at downtown's Lark Drugs longer than anyone can remember.

It was 1947 when Irene Strombom, then 25, landed a summer job at the predecessor to Lark. That means she has worked at the Main Street pharmacy for a few months shy of 66 years.

"It's gone awful fast," she said with a smile and mild shake of her head. It doesn't seem all that long ago to her that a summer weekend would bring in a fair number of women tourists seeking something for covering up on Sunday morning.

"They wanted to get to church and they needed to get scarves for their heads," she said. "We sold a lot of scarves."

The drugstore was also a hot spot for folks to pick up something to read while soaking up the rays on Johnson's Beach.

"Boy, that was a big business -- magazines and comic books," she recalled. She can only guess how many hours she spent at the drugstore's former gift-wrap corner, taping paper and bows onto presents for people lucky enough to have birthdays on summer vacation.

Irene remembers Jimmy Neeley ferrying her across the swollen Russian River, twice a day, so that she could get to work and then back home when floods cut off access to the bridge. She remembers how grateful she was when computers came into use in the store and her bosses told her she need not bother with them.

Lark Drugs has been so good to her, she has mixed emotions about her decision to retire at the end of this month. But she's close to 91 years old, and she has moved slower since the hip surgery that followed a fall at home last April.

"I can't imagine working any other place all these years," she said. "I feel fortunate to have found something that would support me."

One of Irene's bosses, Lark Drugs co-owner Jim Gaffney, said he half-expects her to dabble with retirement and then come back to work.

"She's sort of like the rock of the store," he said. "Everybody in town knows her."

Gaffney and partner Al Staszel bought the store in 1997, the same year as the party that celebrated Irene's 50th year of working there. "We naturally assumed she would be leaving us soon," he said.

Well, that's now 16 years ago. Since then, Irene has continued to come to work every day and do the banking, accept customers' phone-company and cable-TV payments, help out at the register and cheerfully do whatever else needs doing.

"It wouldn't be the same without her," Gaffney said. "And it's not going to be the same without her."

Irene hasn't lived all her life in Guerneville, but she made her first trip or two to the river town before she was born. Her folks, Andrew and Gerda Strombom, had begun leaving the East Bay for Russian River respites well before their daughter was born in July 1922.

Irene was 5 when her dad, who worked on pipelines and pumping stations for Standard Oil, built a vacation cabin on a piece of land near Vacation Beach, across the river from town. As a youngster, Irene spent a lot of time in that house with her mother and her brother.

"The minute school let out, she packed the car and up we came," she said. Her dad would join them as the demands of work allowed.

Irene lights up at the memory of the California Northwestern train arriving from Fulton and points south. "It used to be such fun to see it pull in with all the people," she said.

She was 19 and a high-school graduate when the U.S. entered World War II in 1941. Her father went to work at the Marinship shipyards in Sausalito. She did, too -- in the mailroom.

When the war ended, Andrew Strombom retired and the family settled in Guerneville for good. And in 1947, he built a second house just downhill from the family's original vacation cabin.

That second house has been Irene's home ever since. "It's been painted once, but it needs it again," she said.

That same year she moved into the house, 1947, she landed the summer job at what was then the Guerneville Pharmacy. She started as a clerk and pretty soon was familiar with the store's brisk summer trade in beach paraphernalia, cosmetics, liquor, magazines and gifts.

Decades ago, the river town was a dramatically different town in the summer than in the off-season. "In the spring, you were anticipating the tourists, and in the fall you were glad to see them go," she said.

She watched Guerneville change from a vacation town to much more of a year-round town. That's been OK with her. She loved it in the early 1920s and she loves it now.

"I don't know what it is," she said. "It's home. I can't think of anywhere I'd rather be."

Irene met a great many people at Lark Drugs over the past six decades but she didn't marry any of them. "I wouldn't have been easy to live with, I don't think -- too independent!"

She's long beloved not only at the pharmacy but at Guerne-ville Community Church. When she fell at home on the first Sunday in April and couldn't get up, she calmed herself by trusting that someone from the church would appear when she failed to show up or to answer her phone.

Sure enough, she'd been on the floor about an hour when a couple of concerned church friends arrived at her door.

Every Sunday afternoon, she helps with Street Church. An outreach for people who are homeless, it convenes with a short service in a parking lot in the center of town and concludes with a stew or casserole or something else to eat.

Small surprise that people living on the street will call out cheerfully to her or kid with her whenever they spot her outside of Lark Drugs.

Irene is looking forward to having folks drop in at the store between 1 and 4 p.m. on Friday, when her co-workers will host a farewell celebration. She's a little anxious but also excited that she's about to do what her parents did a long time ago and what a heap of people would love to do one day.

She'll retire in Guerneville.

Chris Smith is at 521-5211 and chris.smith@pressdemocrat.com.

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