When the checkout lines are long and the last item you needed was just snatched off the shelf, it’s easy to become a grumpy shopper.
But a welcoming door greeter at the Cleburne Wal-Mart makes sure every one of his customers has a pleasant and memorable experience.
Customers say 89-year-old Dan Whitaker of Cleburne goes above and beyond the standard “Hello” and “Goodbye” when people enter and leave the store.
“I say things like, ‘Fill this buggy up and come get another,’ or ‘This buggy has warm handles,’” he said. “Or to a couple I might tell them, ‘Either one of you may ride, but not both.’”
Whitaker said people tend to respond positively to a friendly and genuine greeting.
“The smiles and the comments are always pleasing to me,” he said. “Customers say that I help to make the shopping experience pleasant.”
Whitaker first began working at Wal-Mart in 2005 as a temporary job around Christmastime.
“I’d always said that being a door greeter at Wal-Mart is something they give grandma to do to keep her off the streets,” he said. “But, it is honorable work and I thoroughly enjoy it.”
When the temporary job was over, Whitaker was transferred to working as a cashier.
“As a teenager, I had worked all over the Piggly Wiggly store and enjoyed checking customers out,” he said. “So I looked forward to this job assignment at Wal-Mart and the first universal price code I learned was 4011, or bananas. I came to know that this is the first number most cashiers memorize. I was on schedule.”
Whitaker made a list of UPCs he felt he needed to learn first.
“I took my list home to memorize and I still keep a list that I am working on,” he said. “I have 3-by-5 cards in my pocket; some call them my cheat sheets, to which I reply, ‘These are not cheat sheets. These are my pocket reference cards.’”
Because he was getting so good at his job, Whitaker was often asked to train new employees.
“Some have never used a cash register of any kind, while some only need a refresher after a long absence from a cashier position,” he said. “I try to fit to the trainee’s needs by showing, showing again and then letting them do. It’s a process that I find helpful and rewarding, to them and to me.”
Lottie Rhoades, who supervises the front end of Wal-Mart, said Whitaker is an inspiration for all of the store’s employees.
“He is basically what Wal-Mart wants all of our employees to be focused on and that is customer service,” she said. “I have seen customers stand in his line for 45 minutes just to hear his joke of the day. They could have easily gotten into a shorter line and been in and out of the store quicker. He has a great work ethic.”
Whitaker said all of his life he has been able to say things in different ways.
“Instead of, ‘Hello, did you find everything?’ I try to greet each customer with a song,” he said. “And some things I find myself saying to customers are, ‘This [receipt] is a souvenir of your Wal-Mart experience,’ and ‘Here is your certificate of ownership — this is not a rental.’”
Rebecca Butler of Cleburne said she looks forward to her trips to the store because she gets to see Whitaker.
“It really makes my day when I get to see him because it’s like no matter how bad your day was, his conversations make everything better,” she said. “I can honestly say that I laugh every time I see him because he comes up with the funniest phrases. Shopping wouldn’t be the same without him here.”
About two years ago, Whitaker said a man approached him inside the store and tried to hand him an envelope.
“I knew what it was and I told him we are not allowed to accept tips,” he said.
The man told him he was going to give him the envelope outside in the parking lot.
“Well, he did meet in the parking lot later on,” Whitaker said. “He put the envelope in my basket and told me to do what I want with it. When I opened it up there was a $50 bill inside. I contributed it to a fund that we were doing for Cook Children’s [Medical Center] to buy diapers for premature babies and so that was the end of that.”
Whitaker said he didn’t know who the man was, but found out he had taken up a collection for him on Facebook.
“People began reporting to me, ‘I saw your name on Facebook and there were over 400 likes [on the post],’” he said. “My usual response was, ‘You’d be surprised how much it costs me to get rumors like that started.’”
Larissa Cane of Cleburne said Whitaker’s smile makes her smile.
“It’s good to see a man of his age still loving life so much,” she said. “He just inspires me because whenever I am having a tough day or want to complain about something I think about him and how he continues to give everything he’s got. I hope I am like him when I am his age.”
Whitaker said he is often asked how he can endure long days on his feet.
“I have no problem — an eight-hour day is like a piece of cake,” he said. “It’s the long walk to the car that takes my breath away. I was in the hospital for a tonsillectomy before first grade and not again until I was 88. I had an aortic valve replaced. At the age of 89 I had my esophagus resized and went back to work the next week.”
Whitaker was a high school band director for 15 years and served in the U.S. Air Force for four years, playing the French horn in Air Force bands.
He later served for 40 years as minister of education between nine churches and is now a deacon at the Burleson Church of Christ.
He and his wife, Lois “Butch” Whitaker, have one daughter, Debbie.
Dan Whitaker said he enjoys greeting customers at Wal-Mart and plans to stay indefinitely.
“I enjoy the exchange with people of all ages, I enjoy the interaction with other employees,” he said. “I enjoy seeing a wide selection of the people of Cleburne and our area.”
And when their shopping is complete, customers hear Dan Whitaker exclaim, as they walk out of the store, “See you again in three days — that’s the average, you know.”