By David Schriemer, MD
Helen “Toots” Nelson celebrated her 89th birthday in January. She had already received her best birthday present, an invitation to return to work at the Corstange Greenhouse in February. She had been a little ambivalent about working, worrying if she could still do the job to her standards. But when she received that note with her previous year’s W-2 form she decided, “Well, I guess I have to work now.”
No one could be more delighted to work than Toots.
She grew up in Portage. Her father, Nanno Hazelhoff, was a Dutch immigrant and a celery farmer. Their greenhouse and celery farm was on Westnedge Avenue where Putters Miniature Golf is today. As a child she helped start celery seedlings in the greenhouse.
Toots has “no idea” how she got her nickname. She has always been known as Toots. “My mother said I was a cute baby. I said, ‘What happened?’”
Toots quit school at 16 and went to work in a factory for three years. She met Harry Nelson, got married and soon after had two daughters, Ruth Ann and Donna. As the girls got older, she returned to work in retail at Federals, Gilmores and Don’s Card Hut. She was a good worker but would tire of retail. “I wasn’t one who believed ‘the customer is always right.’” She would periodically return to work in the greenhouses, get refreshed and return to retail. Toots reported with pride,“I never applied for a job.” Employers asked her to work for them, whether in retail or in the greenhouse.
When Toots was a young teenager, the celery business was no longer profitable and celery farmers turned to raising flowers in their greenhouses. The greenhouses got busy and required more workers from February to June. Toots loved to be in the warm bright greenhouses that time of year. She worked at the Peterman, Schram, Posthumus and now Corstange greenhouses. The Corstanges have employed her for eight seasons since George Posthumus, a former owner retired.
Dave Corstange worked in the greenhouse for Carl Hoeksema. With Carl’s help, he started his own greenhouse business on Centre Street in 1972. The business has changed radically. Toots’s father had a small greenhouse to start celery seedlings and then raised his plants on five acres.
The Corstanges have about 3 acres of greenhouses, sell over 120,000 geraniums, 200,000 begonias, about 12,000 flower baskets and many other flowers each season. They import seeds and plants from Uganda, Costa Rica, Guatemala and Israel. Many tasks are now automated. Toots reports that when she started, she made three cents for every two flats of seedlings she completed. She could turn out about 66 flats and make about a dollar a day. Now workers are paid hourly and a good worker like Toots can prepare over 200 flats per day.
Corstange reports it’s difficult to find good help for seasonal work. He has hired a number of retirees like Toots. Toots loves to get out of the house in the dead of winter. When asked about driving to work in winter she said, “My kids worry about it”.
Corstange confirms Toots couldn’t make it in only three to four times in the previous seven years. The Corstanges love her. “It embarrasses the 19 and 20-year-olds when she outworks them,” said Corstange. His son, Todd, added, “People just don’t have Toots’s work ethic.”
Toots has made a few accommodations for her age. She works half days and quits in April before the work is more physically demanding. She reports coworker and friend Gail Weber helps her out. “She keeps me straight. If I don’t hear something, because my hearing isn’t so good, she’ll tell me what to do and when it’s icy outside, and I need an arm walking to the car, she helps me.”
Toots loves the work. “It’s good for me. I should pay them to work because therapy costs a lot more.”