'The Boss' retires from Albertsons

By Loretto J. Hulse, Tri-City HeraldMarch 7, 2013 

The Boss went out with class. Fred Burnham, 57, retired from the Richland Albertsons store on Lee Boulevard on Wednesday, wearing his tuxedo.

"He loves to dress up and wears it every chance he gets, to dinner, to dances; any occasion," said Paul Klear of Kennewick, a longtime friend of Burnham. "This is one of the biggest events of his life."

Burnham was dubbed The Boss years ago by a store manager and the moniker stuck. His name tag even reads "The Boss."

Burnham, who has Down syndrome, worked for two and a half hours twice a week at the Albertsons store for 22 years. He bagged groceries, retrieved carts from the parking lot and generally lent a hand whenever, wherever he could.

Albertsons checker Janie Levanger worked with Burnham for more than four years and said she'll miss his cheerful attitude.

"He's sweet and always the first one there to offer to help out. I'm amazed how many people who come through the store know him and he knows them. He asks after their families by name, always had a smile and loved to put stickers on the little kids who came through," Levanger said.

At noon Wednesday, his last day at work, his fellow employees, customers and family gathered round to tell stories, thank him for his hard work and send him down the retirement path with cake and gifts.

"His health is slipping, so retirement was necessary," said Burnham's guardian, Sharon Rhodes of Richland.

Normally outgoing, a jokester and chatty with customers, Burnham was subdued Wednesday. He only nodded yes when asked if he'd enjoyed his time at Albertsons and would miss the people. Occasionally he'd wipe away a tear.

"I've appreciated his help with the customers. Fred's an awesome person to have around," said store director Vasily Doroshchuk.

Jason Miller of West Richland, the front-end manager for the store and Burnham's direct supervisor, worked with Burnham for 171/2 years.

"He's always done a great job. We have a lot of loyal customers because of him," Miller said.

Doroshchuk said Albertsons doesn't go out of its way to hire the disabled, but instead, "stays involved with the community and tries to help out any way the company can."

Dorothy Hill of Richland, who is married to Burnham's cousin Dick Hill, said "Fred loved to go to work. It meant a great deal to him. Albertsons has been wonderful to him over the years."

Burnham's success at Albertsons shows that disabled people do have a place in society, said Amy Carrigan of West Richland. She's the sister of Burnham's best buddy, John Esty, 55, who also is mentally disabled.

"They need to feel worthy, to do a job, get a paycheck. He was honored to have this job for so many years," Carrigan said.

Burnham and Esty live with their home care provider, Nichelle Wallskog, in a Richland adult family home.

"They've known each other since they were kids," Wallskog said. "They attended the special education program in Richland together and participated in activities through ARC and Special Olympics."

Paul Klear is a bit worried how Burnham will handle retirement.

"This store has been a big part of his life," Klear said. "Yet he's active and loves sports, softball, football and bowling. But lives and breathes basketball and played it in Special Olympics."

Burnham's guardian, Rhodes, also had some worries.

"Talking about retirement, I kept it positive and would say, how cool is it that you are able to retire? He seemed to embrace it. Especially when I told him he was going to get more money," Rhodes said. "That really tickled him. He likes money and he likes food."

Burnham earned $44 a week working at Albertsons. In retirement, Rhodes will give him $50 a week, drawn from a trust and Social Security disability payments.

She's also ensured he'll stay busy. Burnham is signed up for two days a week for the ARC VIP Program, which includes activities like sports, swimming, even picking up trash.

"The idea is to keep them out in the community," Rhodes said.

He'll also attend Adult Day Services. Saturdays, he and his buddy, Esty, head for the mall for lunch and Sundays they walk to church.

"John (Esty) is so envious. He keeps going around the house saying only two more years until I retire, only two more years," Wallskog said.

-- Loretto J. Hulse: 582-1513; lhulse@tricityherald.com

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