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Donna Cass checks out for the last time: A quarter century at the IGA is celebrated

At the end of her shift on the afternoon of Friday, April 2 walking out of the doors of the IGA, Donna Cass thought there was some kind of emergency in the parking lot. There was a crowd of people standing around and a Fire Department vehicle with lights and sound on. But then she quickly realized what was going on; it was all for her.

“It was really overwhelming,” Ms. Cass said. “People were coming up and thanking me,” Ms. Cass said. “I’m not sure for what.”

April 2 was the last time Donna Cass would walk out the doors of the IGA as an employee after 25 years on the job. Before she left the IGA, owners and staff had provided balloons, cake and a gift-wrapped bottle of something special.

Ms. Cass said she had been inundated with cards, flowers, and phone calls from those who knew she was leaving. “It was amazing,” she said.

Trish Anzalone, who works at the Islander, was the organizer of the surprise celebration outside the IGA. She knew Ms. Cass was finishing up her 25 years, but was reminded of it when Brian Cass, Ms. Cass’s husband, stopped by the Islander that morning for a cup of coffee. “I thought to myself, ‘I’m going to do something special for Donna,’” Ms. Anzalone said.

She called Fire Department brass to get permission for a vehicle and one was quickly assigned. She then posted on Facebook that the surprise was happening and people began to gather.

“I wish I could have done more,” Ms. Anzalone said. “Donna’s always so  positive and fun.”

Ms. Cass embracing Trish Anzalone, who organized the surprise celebration, as other friends waited to congratulate her on her retirement. (Credit: Adam Bundy)

The “thank yous” people offered Ms. Cass during the celebration were for a quarter of a century of being the familiar, social and pleasant presence at the checkout, for always being respectful and helpful, and ready to chat if customers had something on their minds. As everyone said Friday, as well as many who weren’t there but knew it was her last day, Ms. Cass was a welcoming presence who would be missed.

Actually, she didn’t put in 25 years as a cashier at the IGA, but 25 years and 30 days. Her first shift was March 4, 1996, when the IGA was known as “George’s IGA,” owned by George Walsh, who previously had operated George’s Market.

She’d been working at Carol’s Luncheonette on Route 114 across from the school, a place that had been a store and lunch counter for decades under different names and owners, such as Getty’s, Nevel’s, Carol’s, Tom’s, the Osprey Café and John’s Grill, before finally closing in 2009.

Asked what she did at Carol’s for the six years she worked there, Ms. Cass said, “Everything. Anything and everything that had to be done, I did. I’m just a girl who had to work all her life.”

But she was working without any benefits at all and was looking for a change for the better. One late winter day in 1996, a friend came into Carol’s and Ms. Cass said to her, “I’ve got to do something.” Her friend told her that George’s was hiring.

She was immediately taken on as a cashier. “It was the old kind,” she remembered with a laugh, “where you had to punch in the numbers?”

Much later, when analog became digital, “I was petrified,” she said, “but I told myself, ‘You can do this,’ and I learned quickly.” 

When she started, the IGA was open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Thursday, and Friday and Saturday from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. On Sundays, the store closed at 1 p.m. “George and Mrs. Walsh believed people should be able to get home to have dinner with their families and have time to be with them on Sunday,” Ms. Cass said.

She worked a regular weekday shift, but filled in on weekends if someone was out. “In those days, high school kids worked weekends at the cash register or stocking shelves,” she said.

Asked about a particular day that sticks out in 25 years, she vividly remembers, like everyone, Sept. 11, 2001. With the IGA not just a grocery store, but a place to connect with other Islanders. “People were coming in all day long talking about what was happening,” she said. “It was scary, especially because there was a lot of different stories of what was going on.”

Ms. Cass was on the job through the most perilous months of the pandemic as an essential worker. A year ago, in February and March, it all came as a bit of shock. At times it “seemed out of control,” she remembered. “Everyone was here, filling the store, stripping the shelves of everything, just cleaning it out.”

But store employees and volunteers from the town took over to organize the shopping, with limited numbers of people allowed inside the store at one time, with mask-wearing and mandatory social distancing.

“I didn’t feel as scared after that,” Ms. Cass said. She still was concerned about getting sick, but was careful, and “when I got home I washed what I had on right away.”

Sometimes customers could be rude, she said. “But I’d just tell myself, ‘Breathe, breathe and take it easy.’”

One baffling and sometimes upsetting part of the job was when people would come in and try to exchange items they had obviously used. “Once someone came in with a bag of bread with only two slices left,” she remembered. “They wanted their money back because there was something wrong with the bread. I thought, ‘You’ve got to be kidding.’” 

Early on, she realized that the IGA was a place where some people came not just for groceries, but more for human contact. “They’ll come in three or four times a day, people who really want to see and talk to other people,” she said. “It’s their social time. They’ll come in for a while and then they’ll go to the Post Office for the same reason, to chit-chat for a few minutes. People who have lost loved ones, who are alone.”

A chat and a smile at the checkout counter is sometimes all they need, she said, to make the day pass with a little less stress.

Asked what’s next, Ms. Cass said she’ll spend more time with her husband and children and grandchildren. But she won’t be idle.

“I’ve got some irons in the fire” for another job, she said. “Something part time,” she paused, and said with a smile, “And not on my feet all day long.”