When the phone rings at his office, Wayne Krimminger can't help but think of his late friend Mary Miller.
Krimminger, 45, has been Harrisburg's zoning administrator for seven years. He met Miller about three years ago after responding to her service call about an overgrown lawn.
Miller, a widow in her 80s, moved to Harrisburg in 1987. Krimminger said she had hard-to-meet standards when it came to the aesthetics of the town and how it operates.
"I talked to her for just a few minutes that first day, no different than I'd talk to anyone else," said Krimminger. "She asked for my card, so I gave it to her, and she called maybe a week later about a suspicious car."
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At first, she called periodically, though not always with a concern about zoning. Still, Krimminger always took her call. One day, she asked to take him out to lunch as a friend, and Krimminger agreed. It soon became a regular part of Krimminger's day to talk with her or visit her.
The two shared lunch regularly at Louis' Grille, off N.C. 49. On his own time, Krimminger ran errands with her and helped with minor repairs around her house.
Last October, when Krimminger went to get her for a lunch date, he knocked on her door and she didn't answer.
He walked around her house and saw her through a window. She apparently had collapsed and had been lying on the floor for hours, wedged between furniture. She was incoherent, but she was able to tell him she had fallen and couldn't move, he said.
Krimminger called 911. Members of the Harrisburg Fire Department climbed through a window to let rescue workers into the house. An ambulance took Miller to Carolinas Medical Center-NorthEast in Concord.
After work that day, Krimminger visited her at the hospital, where nurses told him she had had a heart attack and would not be able to return home.
That was the last time he saw her. Her conditioned worsened, and she was eventually moved to hospice care in Monroe, where she died Dec. 19, a month after her 88th birthday.
"I knew she wasn't herself, because she stopped calling," said Krimminger. "She knew the number to Town Hall better than she knew her own number."
Employee of the month
Krimminger was recognized as employee of the month at a town meeting in November. The town doesn't present the award regularly, but Jenny Franklin, Harrisburg's customer service supervisor, wrote a letter nominating him for the honor.
She cited philosopher Elbert Hubbard, who said, "Men are only as great as they are kind," then went on to tell the story of this kind man.
It was Franklin who forwarded Miller's first call to Krimminger.
When he met Miller, "He could see she was in need of some help in other areas," Franklin wrote. "He began to do small, helpful things for her, and she began to call regularly.
"We all soon realized that she was calling more for the friendship that our employee was providing than for any real issue. And every time she would call, he would answer."
Franklin said Krimminger is a smart, honest co-worker and a major asset to Harrisburg.
"We do not know how long she was lying there or what would have happened had (Krimminger) not gone to her home," wrote Franklin. "What we do know is that what started as a few simple acts of kindness changed someone's life forever.
"If it is true that men are only as great as they are kind, truly he is a great man."
Escorting a friend
Krimminger, at least three times the size of his elderly friend, said he would escort the thin, white-haired lady who was too proud to use a cane or walker.
She would hold his hand or his arm wherever they went.
Once, a truck driver commended Krimminger as he walked her through the parking lot to go to lunch.
"I always had to re-direct her to the ramp, and when we'd get to the ramp, I'd hold her hand," he said. "Well, I heard someone roll down a window, and this great big guy with a burly voice said, 'That is precious.'
"He told me he had just lost his mother, and he was welling up. He said, 'You're a good man. Love her while you can, because she won't always be here.' That was pretty powerful."
As the months passed, Miller's health and memory started to decline, and she started to forget about their lunch dates.
"But I'd give her 20 minutes, she'd go do her thing, and out the door we'd go," said Krimminger.
"Initially, she was very animated and very opinionated about how things should be kept in her neighborhood. I suspect she wanted to get out of the house, and I was happy to oblige that.
"As time went on, instead of once every month, or once every two months, it'd become weekly. Toward the end, it was almost every day."
Lunches, apples and laughs
During lunches, the two often talked about the achievements of Miller's grandkids over a hot dog all the way, followed by banana pudding for dessert.
Miller would give him apples every time they met.
"I ate them until I was red," said Krimminger. "She was very proud. She wouldn't go out with her hair a mess. She always dressed well.
"I think what I'll remember most is her straightforwardness. She didn't sugar-coat things. She was just absolutely to the point. "
He said he'll also miss the laughter.
"It definitely changed me," said Krimminger. "I felt she was such a good person, and it was such a shame for her to sit over there by herself. She was very sweet and smart, and sometimes she had legitimate problems that needed to be solved.
"If she called, everything else had to stop. Believe me, it became a priority. Because she would call me every 30 minutes until the problem was solved. She kept me honest."
A true gentleman
Patsy Waldrop, 66, lived in Harrisburg 35 years and was Miller's neighbor for 20 years before she moved to Denver about five years ago. Waldrop said she felt like a daughter to Miller.
As Miller's health and eyesight started failing, Waldrop began to help with errands and doctor appointments, and they'd often spend birthdays together.
"Mary thought of Wayne like a son," said Waldrop. "If there ever was a gentleman, it was Wayne Krimminger."
In 2008, remnants from Tropical Storm Fay dropped 11 inches of rain. Rocky River flooded Waldrop's home, but not before Miller let her store belongings across the street in her garage, on higher ground.
"She was a tough, hard person, but once she liked you and respected you, you had a friend for life," said Waldrop. "She mowed her own lawn, cleaned her own house. She was very independent up until the last few years. ...
"She was truly loved by Wayne, and she thought a lot of him. They just had a wonderful friendship."
Now that she's gone, Krimminger said, a part of his life is gone.
"I will miss her. I really will," he said.