Summit County community celebrates 99th birthday of WWII vet, City Market employee
DILLON — Staff and customers gathered together Wednesday at City Market at the Dillon Ridge Shopping Center to celebrate a special birthday for one of the store’s most noted employees.
Egon Gerson, a World War II veteran and Summit Cove resident, celebrated his 99th birthday in style, surrounded by friends, co-workers and patrons hoping to make the day a memorable one.
“Out of the half a million employees Kroger has, Egon is the oldest working associate by two years,” store manager Marc Ofsowitz said. “We had a great turnout, and everyone loved being able to come up to him and shake his hand. I think we owe him that respect, and we love having him here.”
Gerson was born in 1921 in Dresden, Germany. In 1938, when he was just 17 years old, Gerson and his family fled the Nazi regime to Chicago, where he immediately began immersing himself in the new culture. Though, the transition wasn’t always smooth, especially having to learn a new language.
“I remember we’d be on the bus, and someone would say something to us, and all you could do was laugh,” Gerson said. “We didn’t know how else to respond. … It wasn’t easy. But I had relatives that first came in 1904, and others in 1922. So we had some family. And they directed me to night school.”
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Gerson said he learned English in school and was given an eighth-grade graduation certificate for his efforts. Once he was proficient, he jumped into the workforce, taking on a role with a craft machine manufacturer in town. It was around that time that he met his eventual wife, Elaine.
“I met her through a friend I was working with,” Gerson said. “He asked me to a party, and there was a young lady there, and we made a date. When I got there, another young lady came down to tell me she couldn’t go. So I asked her if she wanted to go for a walk. That young lady that gave me the message ended up being my wife. We went down to Lincoln Park, and that’s how it started.”
The two were married on Christmas Day in 1942. Elaine, who went on to become something of a fixture in the community herself — in particular for her work with the county’s libraries — died in 1996.
Gerson became an American citizen in March 1944 and enlisted in the U.S. Navy a month later.
“I felt that I had to do anything I could to destroy the Nazis,” Gerson said about his decision to enlist. “That was my reason. I felt that whatever little thing I could do to help destroy the Nazis, I would.”
The Navy sent Gerson to “diesel school” to become a motor mechanic, and he spent most of his service time in the Pacific theater “doing whatever had to be done to keep the boat going.” He was assigned to a small landing craft before being stationed aboard the USS Ashland with the 4th Marine Division. On Feb. 19, 1945, he participated in the American invasion of Iwo Jima.
“I was on ship duty, but we were under fire just like anyone else,” Gerson said about the landing. “Looking back, I guess I felt like it was important and that I was doing something to help achieve something important. I felt like I was doing something to win the war.”
Gerson returned to Chicago after the war and moved to Summit County full time in 1977. He continued his service in the area as a firefighter for two years and as an EMT with the former Summit County Ambulance Service for 12 years. Gerson also spent 50 years volunteering with the American Red Cross, including a stint as the chapter chairman in Dillon. The Dillon Red Cross center still bears his name as the Egon Gerson Red Cross Service Center.
Gerson began his time with City Market in October 1996 at the old Dillon store, working part time as a “drug runner” at the pharmacy, helping to fill prescriptions and make deliveries. He said he was let go about six years later but was asked to take on another position as a greeter by the store manager.
He’s remained a City Market employee for almost 25 years, and at 99 years old still comes in every Wednesday to make rounds at the store and pick up items people have discarded from their carts. Though, much of his time is spent talking with regular customers who stop by to say hello.
“When I first started working here nine years ago, I wasn’t the store manager; I was just a produce assistant manager,” Ofsowitz said. “The first thing I noticed immediately was the fact that everyone talked to him. You see him going up and down the isle, and people are always asking him about his military service, and they want to thank him for that. And people are asking him how he’s doing. … He’s earned it. He’s earned the respect that we give him and that the customers give him.”
Gerson, who lives with his daughter Nancy in Summit Cove, said the number of people who came out to wish him a happy birthday flattered him and that his continued work at City Market keeps his spirits high during the week.
“When I’m working here, like today, it’s one of the only times that people get to come see me,” Gerson said. “I’ll be walking, and someone will say, ‘Hey, Egon. How are you?’ It’s enjoyable to me to be able to get out of the house once a week and to be with young people. And the people here are so friendly. I didn’t know I had that many friends.”
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