Jun. 8—Longtime customers at Ashland Hardware are mourning the end of an era as store manager Cathy Trower moves toward retirement after 32 years.
And for those who want to say goodbye, the store is throwing a going away party from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursday, June 9. About 500 people are expected to attend the party, which will be catered by Simple Cafe.
"She's just kind of the heartbeat of the store," said Adam Christie, another store manager who has worked for eight years with Trower, whose husband, former Mail Tribune sports editor Tim Trower, retired last June after 31 years at the paper.
Christie said he and other employees have a running joke that it will take three employees with three different specialties to replace Trower. Former managers, co-workers and store owners all spoke about Trower's effervescent presence in the store.
Christie called her the matriarch. Tim Ringer, a former manager, now part time as he approaches his own retirement, calls Trower his "work wife" after 17 and a half years together.
"She was the savior of all animals, birds that got in the store, lost puppies," Ringer said, thinking especially of the store's former cat, a girl named Pete.
"She and Pete were famous," Ringer said.
Pete enjoyed jumping into customers' cars without their knowledge. Ringer remembered the time a customer made it all the way to the California border before realizing there was a stowaway. Trower was there to welcome Pete back home.
Co-workers described Trower as someone who brought flowers and balloons to those in the hospital. Someone who went the extra mile and did all she put her hands to with integrity. Someone who helped build a sense of family at Ashland Hardware.
"We're family; I think the whole community of Ashland is a large, crazy family," Trower said.
Christie remembered Trower measuring kids against a wall in the store as they grew up, some of them coming in as employees at their first job.
"She taught them practical life skills, she showed them, you know this is the right way to do things," Ringer said.
Now some of those she mentored return to the store with their own children in tow, ready to start projects as homeowners, Ringer said.
"I had a customer tell me the store was tiny until Cathy came," said the store's previous owner, Phil Emard.
Emard worked with Trower for more than 10 years before selling the store to his daughters. He remembered the beginning as an uphill climb for Trower.
"She was fairly early into a male-dominated industry. She had to learn to deal with grumpy old men and contractors," Emard said.
In those days Trower would greet her customers, "Can I help you find something?"
"They would say, 'Nope; I want to talk to a man,'" Trower said.
Trower said it was a good old boys' time back then, and she really didn't know much about hardware. She convinced her first boss to hire her by saying she was a fast learner and a hard worker.
Her first boss tutored her. She spent time teaching herself every part of the store and learned from customers. Her first boss would stand behind customers, Trower said, mouthing her the answers to customer questions.
Thirty-two years later, the tables are turned.
"Now when people walk in the store, my guys will say, 'Can I help you?' and they'll say, 'Nope; I want to talk to Cathy,'" Trower said.
Ringer said women coming into the store gravitated toward Trower, gaining a sense of confidence from her, then returning, elated to share their completed projects that once seemed beyond their reach.
Trower said she thinks of the store as a pillar of the community.
During the New Year's flood in '97, the store was closed, but Trower knocked on the door, and her manager let her in. She needed tools because her backyard was flooded. Soon customers come knocking, begging for help.
She and her manager wrote down all transactions by hand because the computers were down for the holiday. They worked until they sold everything that could help anyone with the flood just in time for Trower to make it back to her home in Medford before the freeway was submerged.
"This week's going to zoom, and I will ride off into the sunset, I guess," Trower said, as she balanced the bittersweet flavor of the moment.
Trower looks forward to projects around the house, golf tournaments with her friends, a trip to Maui in the winter — and not setting an alarm clock.
When asked if there was anything she would like to say to the people of Ashland, Trower, choking back tears, said simply, "Thank you."
Reach Mail Tribune reporter Morgan Rothborne at email@example.com or 541-776-4487. Follow her on Twitter @MRothborne.