— The loquacious, audacious Marge Hames ended her 79-day protest vigil outside the New Ulm Kmart this week.
The 74-year-old packed up her picket signs and went home to catch up on her sleep, her housecleaning and whatever else has been neglected during her stubborn stint.
Kmart parent company Sears announced in late February it would be closing the New Ulm store, and shortly thereafter Hames became a daily presence along its perimeter.
She never had any illusions that her picketing would alter a corporate decree. She said she did so in support of the employees she befriended over her years as a loyal Kmart customer.
She’ll tell you as much. In fact, she’ll tell you stuff all day long if you care to listen. Suffice to say, Marge is a talker.
“I’d talk to a wall,” she said the other day in her Brooklyn accent that persists despite living in New Ulm nearly half a century.
When she learned Kmart would close, she decided she’d remain on sentry duty there until the lights went out for good. That happened Sunday, and when it did, Marge went home. But not before performing two final, symbolic gestures that we’ll get to momentarily.
First a bit about Marge’s earlier days.
She grew up in Brooklyn and landed in New Ulm by way of wedlock.
Husband Jim, who died four years ago, was a New Ulm native. She said it was a tryst that defied all odds.
“The fact we ever got married is a miracle.”
Long story short, she met Jim through the guy who would become her brother-in-law. She met the guy out East and, to put it mildly, they didn’t get along then nor after.
Moreover, she thought she’d never see Jim again after inviting him to dinner at her home, where her mother made a gourmet meal that was molested by the family’s parakeet.
Damn thing got loose and danced through the spuds, flicking mashed potatoes on all.
Marge thought that would be the last she saw of Jim, but he threw her a curve.
“That’s the most fun I’ve ever had,” he told her.
On a typical picketing day outside Kmart, Marge would pull up at 11 a.m. and be on the “job” until 5 p.m.
Because she wasn’t allowed to picket on company property, she set up across the street, along the edge of the town cemetery.
At first she tried pacing back and forth with her “Keep Kmart open” sign, but that pained her surgically repaired back.
“Two titanium screws,” she said.
After that, she just made sure she was a visible presence each day. Kmart employees gifted her with a canvas chair and canopy, and on days when weather put the kibosh on sitting outside, she propped up her sign and stayed in her car.
With the exception of Sundays and Easter, she was there every day. On the Sabbath she would take her Kmart cart — she used it with the manager’s blessing — and stick a sign in it: “Gone to church. Be back on Monday.”
To weigh down the cart so it wouldn’t roll away in the wind she used two bricks and four gallon jugs filled with water.
She acknowledges that some people suggested she’s one sandwich short of a picnic. Others would inquire: What would Jim say?
She’d have a ready answer.
“He’d laugh, shake his head and say, ‘Do your thing.’”
Her thing on any given day was to sit there and do crossword puzzles, read the newspaper, make phone calls, collect litter alongside the cemetery, then go home exhausted.
And then on Sunday, it was over, and Marge packed away her wares. But not before taking those gallon jugs, walking into the cemetery and watering the flowers on her husband’s grave.
Then she waited for the Kmart parking lot to clear and wheeled that cart back to the store. A good customer to the end.
Brian Ojanpa is a Free Press staff writer. Call him at 344-6316 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.