COLLEGE PLACE — Three days before his 80th birthday, the bespectacled owner of Andy’s Market continued his weekly Thursday tradition with an appearance at his College Avenue grocery store.
Emerging from behind a door in the upstairs gathering place, the faint whir of his motorized scooter was barely audible through the cacophony of excited employees filing toward tables of crockpot-simmered dishes and homemade fare brought for a special celebration in his honor.
Walt Anderson stared at the crush of employees with the ear-to-ear grin that has earned him the nickname "Smiley" at the Hermiston care center where he’s taken up residence.
"How are you this morning?" Lynette Gordon asked, greeting her father.
"Happy," he quietly replied.
Today Anderson is 80 years old, a milestone marked by a community celebration at the College Place institution. But the gathering last week was to commemorate an anniversary. One year ago Anderson returned to the helm of the store after an absence of several years following a series of strokes.
Apart from the scooter, the only sign of the strokes on the trim and clean-cut man with the square jaw and sharp features are hiccups in communication. He is not always able to get his thoughts through his lips, despite the strength of a quick mind.
"I can get it out, but it takes me longer," Anderson explained in his soft-spoken tone. "If you haven’t had a stroke, you don’t understand."
Meanwhile his recognition of the store operations — and his customers — has not wavered.
"The thing I’m amazed at: We’ll see somebody in the store and I’ll have to whisper, ‘Dad, what’s their name?’ And he knows it," said Gordon, who owns commercial embroidery business Graphic Apparel.
Unable to operate the business during his recovery, the store floundered, family members and employees say. Employee turnover was high, and morale was low.
Anderson’s return — as well as the renewed presence of his family members — is part of the continued evolution of a store that planted its roots to serve a Seventh-day Adventist community and blossomed into a local institution for the entire Valley.
"It’s not just a grocery store," said Connie Burke, Anderson’s other daughter and the owner of her own Hermiston health food store Alive Well.
That employees are so thrilled to have him back is no surprise to Anderson’s son-in-law, Dave Gordon. Anderson’s giving spirit and approach to business have endeared him to workers and customers alike, he said.
Now as manager of the store, Gordon finds himself adhering to what he refers to as "Waltisms." The basic commandments of running the operation include the philosophy that the customer is always right.
"I once saw him replace a jar of peanut butter for a customer who had eaten two-thirds of the original jar," Gordon quipped. "It took her that long to realize she didn’t like it. But he did it."
Speaking of peanut butter, a jar is always kept in the breakroom, along with jelly and a loaf of bread, for anyone in need of a bite.
Other Waltisms: If you buy it right, you can sell it right. You get what you pay for. If a job is worth doing, it’s worth doing right.
The nuggets of wisdom likely come as no surprise to anyone who’s seen the reader board at Andy’s. The sign at the market has taken on a life as a roadside philosopher with postings of quips, quotes or other wisdom.
All harken to Anderson’s mission as a businessman, father and friend: "I wanted to leave a legacy of honesty, pure and simple," he said.
Purchased by Anderson and his late wife, DeLaine, in 1968, the store was originally known as Ed’s Market and was located in a 1,500-square-foot space now occupied by Darral’s Natural Foods up the street on College Avenue. Anderson had a career as a contractor before that. He was in the middle of constructing a church in La Grande when the opportunity to buy a store presented itself.
He jumped at the chance, in part, to provide training ground for his daughters, who earned money for college as store employees. The market encompassed the health conscience of the Seventh-day Adventist community in which it was located with a specific focus on affordable, fresh produce and vitamin supplements.
"It was an extremely safe place to get food kosher to the basic health beliefs of Seventh-day Adventists," said Gordon.
In 1974 the business moved to its current spot in what was then known as Village Square.
The larger location — expanded over the years to include 10,000 square feet of storage space — allowed the business to grow. Anderson became the first in the area — arguably in the region — to introduce bulk foods. The dry goods were displayed in square bins. Anderson’s daughters remember the tedious task of resorting the beans behind children who took pleasure in mixing the bins’ contents.
At all times, family members say, Anderson wanted the store to be known for low prices on quality items.
"He wanted to sell in volume," Gordon said. "He would rather make 20 nickels than two quarters."
The market’s inexpensive but vast selection of produce drew a swath of loyal customers far beyond the Seventh-day Adventist community. "Produce is still the biggest single draw," Gordon said.
And as it has in the past, the store features produce from the gardens of area residents.
"We’ll buy a box of rhubarb grown in somebody’s back yard as long as the quality is good and there’s enough to make a display," Gordon said.
Being independent has added a personal flare to the business and made it easier to adapt, operators say. When a customer wants valerian root tea, the store, known for its broad selection of vitamins and supplements, can get it.
As a special touch those shopping through the vitamin section get a glimpse of the closeness of the family through a portrait of DeLaine "Mrs. A" Anderson, who died in 2001, hanging on the wall in memoriam.
The family atmosphere made it all the more difficult when Anderson was taken away from the business. And that’s what’s made his return all the more poignant, they say.
At last week’s anniversary potluck, a banner was posted on the wall. It was from the employees and said: "We’re happier than we were a year ago."Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 526-8321.
Anderson was, too. So happy that he cried.