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For his customers, he's one of a kind

Corporate America _ smarmy, leveraged, cutthroat America; discount, high-volume, bargain-price, service-with-a-snarl America _ could sure learn a thing or two from Richard Kelly.

For starters, he is living proof that status and a fast buck need not be the only barometers of success in today's marketplace. Kelly, pushing 60, has spent more than 35 years at the Jewel supermarket in this well-heeled Chicago suburb and has never moved higher than grocery sacker on the organizational ladder.

Still, with a smile and a hustle and an out-of-fashion notion that work, courtesy and loyalty are their own rewards, he has managed to become probably the most revered grocery sacker around.

A competitor once tried in vain to steal him away from Jewel with promises of shorter hours and higher pay. Pat Nufer, a customer, pointed to Kelly as a role model for her children while they were growing up.

Now, with Kelly planning to retire this month, store manager Trey Johnson is, frankly, worried that business might drop off without his modest but popular bagger, a man who brings a refreshing breath of personal charm to an increasingly sterile, bar-code-scanner world.

Kelly knows whole generations of shoppers by name, hands lollipops to the children and is always there to retrieve the glove that someone dropped or hold the squirming baby while Mom fishes in her purse for the car keys.

Johnson, who was not yet born when Kelly bagged his first pot roast here, recalled the way one longtime customer summed up Kelly the other day: "I can't figure out what it is about Kelly. I can't put my finger on it but he's a great man."

Kelly's secrets to success? For one, don't be satisfied with just putting the bread and eggs on top. Make sure everything in the bag is square and tight. That way, it's less likely to tip and spill all over the car trunk on the way home.

As much as Kelly knows parcels, he knows people even better. In the kind of job where longevity is measured in months, not decades, and a veteran is anyone who can legally buy a beer, Kelly has grown old with his customers. He's gotten to know their children and grandchildren, as well as their troubles and triumphs.

He doesn't just lug their purchases out to the parking lot. He has watched their houses when they were on vacation, cleaned their gutters and mopped their basements when the sewers backed up, and even driven the sick to the hospital.

"The average person looks down on a job like this," Kelly said, "but whatever your hand finds to do, do with all thy might. That's in Ecclesiastes. I may not do it as good as other people, but I'm doing the best I can."

Humble, for sure, but nobody's fool. Back in 1956, Kelly was a night-shift orderly at a Veteran's Administration hospital. His wife became pregnant with the first of their three children and he needed to make extra money to pay for the delivery. So he went to see the company commander of his army reserve unit, who, in civilian life, managed the Northbrook Jewel market. He had been after Kelly for months to come to work for him stocking shelves in the store.

At first, Kelly planned to work only long enough to cover the hospital bill, but then he got the idea that if he kept both jobs he might be able to scrape together enough money to buy a house. By 1958, he had that home, but still he didn't quit.

Over the years, he has acquired seven houses, which he rents out. He started a landscaping business, and continued to work days at Jewel and nights at the hospital until last year, when he retired from the hospital. He also cleaned gutters and did other odd jobs, often for people who had come to know him through the grocery.

Scampering around the check-out counters all these years has helped Kelly form a refreshingly simple but winning philosophy about what it takes to get ahead, one that might be worth a passel of high-priced consultants' reports. Some of his thoughts:

"It's the small things that count. The big things take care of themselves. If a lady drops her keys, you try to be the person to pick them up. If my wife came in to shop, I would like it if somebody put everything in the car for her, and did it without any attitude.

"Too many people today, it seems like they want to get paid but they don't want to work. They want a position but they don't want to work for it. But if I don't get nowhere I can't blame you, I blame me. I'm my biggest supporter, I'm my biggest hindrance."

Now, preparing to hang up his smock this week, Kelly said: "There's other things to do. A lot of old people need some help. Maybe I can go out and talk to some boys on the street and turn their lives around."

Kelly's customers _ his friends, really _ say they understand, but they are sad to see him go, nevertheless.

"If Kelly's leaving, we'll leave, too," another customer joked. "We've known him for 26 years putting the groceries and the kids in and out of the car for me. One day, one of my kids said something about him having an inferior job and I said, "Wait a minute! He does something important.' He's one of the nicest people you'll ever want to meet. He'll never be replaced. They can fill his hours, but not his shoes."