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At 77, Lena Parker is an inspiration

One growing Tupelo company has found older employees to be a God-send

tupelo — Lena Parker is a model employee, a leader who gives 110% and even paid to erect a flag pole beside the outdoor employee break area where she works as a way to give something back to the company she feels has given her so much.

Some would say that 12 years ago when Mississippi Samples, a Tupelo-based company that makes sample swatches for the furniture industry, was struggling to get off the ground Parker was a God-send.

“She is great, absolutely wonderful,” said Mississippi Samples owner Sandy Emmons.

Now the sewing supervisor responsible for overseeing 20 of the company`s 50 employees, Parker, 77, arrives every morning at 6:15 to open the doors, get the coffee brewing and start another day with those who have become her second family.

“I`m gonna work as long as they let me,” said Parker during a lunch break last week. “Even if I didn`t need it financially, I would work.”

Indeed, a lot of people in Parker`s situation feel that way, according to the Andrus Center of the University of Southern California, which estimated that at least 8 million people over 65 want to continue working. That study is further supported by a Harris Poll which showed that 70% of pre-retirees hope to work after retirement.

“What do you do if you don`t work?” said Parker, who labored for 35 years for two different companies in the textile business as a sewer and pattern maker.

When she came to Mississippi Samples she had been out of the industry for nearly 18 years and her unfamiliarity with the equipment and problems with cataracts almost kept her from getting the job. But after cataract surgery Parker began calling Emmons again trying to convince her to give her a shot.

Emmons and her two other partners who had been told by their husbands that the business would only be part-time, quickly found out otherwise as orders began stacking up and quickly overwhelming the small home-based business that operated from the garage and living room of the Emmons` home.

Parker, they thought, would be their saving grace because they had been told she had 18 years experience sewing, Emmons said. Neither of the other two partners could sew and she had only limited experience.

But after talking with Parker, Emmons said it quickly became apparent that it had been 18 years since she had sewn and was unfamiliar with how to even thread the machine.

“I`m not much a drinker but we all needed a drink after that,” Emmons said.

Only Parker`s persistence three months later convinced her to give Parker a chance and it may have been the best decision she ever made, Emmons said.

Thanks to their relationship with Parker, Emmons said Mississippi Samples was able to tap into a virtual well spring of hard, dependable and experienced workers who helped the growing business succeed. Most of them were friends and former co-workers of Parker`s. But after 12 years the well is running dry.

“We`ve just about exhausted all of Lena`s friends,” Emmons said.

Today, Mississippi samples operates from a new 15,000-square foot headquarters built just three years ago and is the predominant provider of samples for the furniture industry in northeast Mississippi.

“It was strictly by accident but it was the best accident that ever happened to us,” Emmons said.

In fact, unless there is a compelling reason, Emmons said she prefers to hire senior citizens, many of whom have retired from other jobs or were laid off due to plant closings. Of the 50 employees,

Emmons said the average age of her employees is around 62. With the exception of about seven, the ages of her employees range from the late 50s to the early 80s. The majority, well over 95%, are women and many of those are widows, she said.

Willie Emmons, a salesman who convinced his wife to start the business, said Mississippi Samples simply couldn`t survive without its unique work force.

Dependable and hard-working, Mr. Emmons said despite what some might believe, things like illness and weather don`t deter them from showing up. When things like ice storms shut down schools and most factories, Mr. Emmons said Mississippi Samples could keep running.

“It`s more of a hassle trying to get them to stay home than to get here,” he said. “This ought to be an inspiration to all of us.”

Some, like Parker, even work when the government penalizes them for doing it.

Parker said for the first four years she worked at Mississippi Samples she opted to work and draw more income than was allowed by the Social Security Administration. As a result, she said she choose to pay the taxes instead of not working. She was happy when she turned 70 and for the last seven years she`s done what she likes.

“Now I can work all I want to,” she said. “I guess I`d have to say Mississippi Samples is my priority. If they need me, I`m here.”

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