Jackie England White of Newton has a following – people who will wait patiently at register two of Newton’s Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant until White takes their order.
Asking White for a bucket of fried chicken means, for them, doing business with a good friend, because they’ve seen White so many times over the years that they’ve come to think of her as more than a fast-food worker.
This year marks four decades that White, 66, has been a KFC employee. She’s got the lapel pins to prove it. She’s also got pins for being as helpful to fellow employees as she is to the customers.
White’s taught lots of new employees how to do what she’s been doing since the slogan was “finger-lickin’ good” and the original recipe didn’t have to be called “original.”
Think 40 years is a long time to work at any one place? Consider that while White served KFC customers, she also worked at Bassett Furniture in Newton. She retired from the furniture manufacturer in 2010.
In 1972, White was in her 20s and had begun working at Bassett. She tried her hand at upholstering but didn’t like it; the physical demands of constantly pulling fabric taut and the mental pressure of working fast to meet production goals was difficult, she said.
White gave it her all but was relieved a couple of years later when her job switched to cutting foam rubber. White said she marked the foam rubber according to a pattern, then cut it using a handheld machine.
“You had to be careful,” said White, “because if you had your spare hand too close, it would cut your fingers off.” White managed to retain all 10 fingers for the 10 years she was a cutter.
Bassett then began buying pre-cut foam rubber, meaning White was out of a job – or would have been had Bassett not offered her the job of cleaning the furniture company’s cafeterias at plants two and four, which were across the street from each other in Newton.
White said she liked the cafeteria work.
“Everybody always gave me a nice compliment about how I kept the dining areas,” said White, who went back and forth, tidying one cafeteria after break time, then the other, then back to the first after lunch, then the other again. “I really liked that job because I had breaks in between,” said White with a smile.
White lived with her father, Glenn England, who managed a Texaco gas station in Conover until he retired at 62. But “he got tired of sitting at home (after retirement),” said White.
England began working at Bassett as a utility person, said White: “He made sure the people building the furniture had the springs they needed.”
England’s job ended 14 1/2 years later, when he was laid off. He died in 2010 from bone cancer.
White took a three-month leave of absence from KFC to care for England before his death. Other than that, White has taken no time off except the occasional overnight trip to a church convention. She’s been a member of New Jerusalem Holiness Church in Newton for about 30 years.
White and her dad had good jobs, they shared a household, and White had no children. So why did she go to work for KFC just one year after starting work at Bassett?
“I love clothes and shoes,” White said with a smile. “When I was at Bassett, I wore a different hat and different pair of tennis shoes every day.”
“On Sundays,” White said, “I love wearing suits to church, and every suit or dress I wear, I wear shoes to match and carry a pocketbook to match.”
As White racked up years of employment at Bassett and KFC, her closet racks began to sag under the weight of a vast wardrobe. “My daddy used to tell me that while I’m at work, he’s going to have a yard sale,” said White. “He used to tease me.”
White occasionally culls her storehouse of garments and donates the clothes to charity. She said she likes to shop online, something she and her cousin, Kay Conner, do together. At last count, White had more than 50 handbags and 200 pairs of shoes – “and suits to go with them,” she said.
Currently, White works three days a week at the KFC on Northwest Boulevard in Newton. She’s been there many years, but it’s not where she started; her first KFC job was a quarter-mile away in Conover. When that store closed – and ultimately was torn down – White applied to work at a new KFC up the street. She was the first person hired for that franchise.
When the owners built a new store a stone’s throw away in Newton, White moved along with the fryers and the cash registers.
“I’ve seen a lot of managers and assistant managers come and go,” said White. To be a good manager, she said, “you’ve got to give respect in order to get respect. It’s the way they treat the customers and the employees.”
As for the customers, well, “some can be real nice,” said White, “and some can be kind of snappy, like especially when the prices go up.”
Customers wait in line to place their order with White. “People tell me, ‘Jackie, you know everybody!’ ”
When asked if it’s been hard standing on her feet for so many years, particularly working two jobs, White said, “I caught polio when I was 8 months old.” She was hospitalized for a while, then made regular trips to a Gastonia hospital until she was 15.
“I wore braces many years,” she said. “I’m supposed to wear them now, but I don’t.”
White’s said she’s known people with the disease who didn’t fare as well as she did.
“I was the only one, really, who came out of it,” said White, saying she has a cousin who can only drag her afflicted leg if she doesn’t wear a brace.
“I thank God I was able to come out it,” White said.
White said she has no plans to retire from KFC.
“I’ll be working there until I can’t work anymore,” she said.
After all, new styles of pocketbooks, shoes and suits come out every season.