My first job
Tulsans recall the ups and downs of their earliest gainful employment.
Your first paycheck might have been earned for throwing newspapers, flipping burgers, lifeguarding, working in the family biz or another minimum-wage gig, but it mostly likely involved paying your dues and learning the value of that hard-earned dollar. Here, Tulsans recall the ups and downs of their earliest gainful employment.
My first job was: as a maintenance man at what was then called The Commons on Lewis Avenue (now called Chateau 68) at 68th and Lewis. As the low man on the pole, my job was to do what the other guys on the maintenance crew didn’t want to do. Lots of sweeping, picking up trash and hedge trimming.
I was: 16.
The best part of the job was: the other guys on the crew. They were hilarious, had great stories and could fix just about anything. One of them had this clunker truck that he refused to trade in. It was just ancient — sky blue with rusty bullet holes in the side of it. One day the engine caught on fire during his drive to work, but he didn’t pull over. He kept driving and made it into the parking lot with the engine on fire, and managed to extinguish it with a fire extinguisher we kept in the maintenance shop. By the end of the day, he finally conceded it was time to trade it in. I wanted to buy that truck so badly, but I couldn’t afford it. I hadn’t saved up enough yet that summer (it was for sale for about $1,200). The one that got away.
The worst part was: dead animal detail. That was one of the jobs the other guys didn’t want to handle so it rolled downhill to me. There were a lot of cats in that complex, and I usually had to dispose of a couple every week.
Lessons I learned on the job: Probably the greatest lesson was just the pride that comes in fixing something that is broken, in cleaning up a space so it looks nice for the people who live there. And what a disgusting nuisance cigarette butts are. All the cigarette butts that people threw out their car windows on Lewis would end up in the bar ditch in front of the complex, and it fell to me to clean them up. You can’t sweep those up because they’re too small. So I had to pick up every single one by hand. To this day, when I see someone thoughtlessly toss a cigarette out a car window it makes me angry because I think of the person who is going to have to clean it up.
Marilyn Ihloff — Owner, Ihloff Salon and Day Spa
My first job was: a summer civil service job working for the U.S. Bureau of Mines (now the U.S. Department of the Interior) in Bartlesville. My duties were to file well logs in the giant basement filing area. These were paper files as there were no digital files in 1964.
I was: 17.
The best part of the job was: I got to dress professionally and had great supervisors. It was the first job other than babysitting and odd jobs that I had. My uncle worked in the lab at the Bureau of Mines and found out about the summer position. Even though the summer job was an entry-level one, I still had to sit for the Civil Service exam before I could even interview. That was an interesting experience.
The worst part was: I was working while my friends were at the pool.
Lessons I learned on the job: That hard work and respect for co-workers and supervisors is rewarded. In order to avoid getting too bored with the repetitive duties of the job, I developed my own little prep system and organized the files on the cart by their destination areas. I also worked to be efficient with my time and understand the scope of the tasks. I got so efficient that I had time on my hands and ended up reorganizing the office area and also the office supply closet. I very much liked the two full-time employees I worked with, but they did take me aside one day and asked that I hold back because they would still be there after I left and didn’t need more duties.
Monique Washington — Co-owner, Physiques by Monique
My first job was: working as a hostess at a restaurant in Eastland Mall called Garfield’s. I had to memorize the table numbers so I could seat our customers without overseating a server in a certain section. I answered the phone, helped bus tables and maintained the cleanliness of the front of the restaurant.
I was: 16.
The best part of the job was: I was the youngest person on staff, so it was fun working with people in their 20s. I loved working there in the summertime because I had a lot of hours.
The worst part was: Nothing. I loved everything about that job.
Lessons I learned on the job: I learned how to interact with customers, how to communicate with others on staff, problem solving, and it also taught me accountability. My parents wouldn’t let me work during the week because of school and track practice. I’ll never forget after working there for a year, I went to my manager and asked if I could have a raise. I walked out of her office with a huge smile on my face because she gave me a quarter more an hour. That put me at a whole $4.50 an hour. I was living the dream.
Don Thornton — Owner, Don Thornton Automotive Group
My first job was: in Wilmington, North Carolina. The summer after my senior year of high school, I worked for the classified ad manager at the Wilmington Morning Star (now called the Wilmington Star News). They needed someone to pick up the car dealers’ ads. I had a few grocery stores and Belks, too. I did it and loved it. Most car dealerships were downtown. I would ride the bus out there and would see the sales manager. We’d walk the lot and see what cars he wanted to advertise. I’d write the copy for the ad and take some pictures. That was the beginning of my career in the auto business. I made 40 cents an hour at the newspaper.At the same time, I had another job as a lifeguard at Wrightsville Beach. There I made $5 a day, which was a lot of money.
I was: 17.
The best part of the job was: going to the dealerships. My folks had never had a new car because they couldn’t afford a new one. We always had used cars. So to walk in and see the shiny new cars on the floor … The sales manager would sometimes let me drive a car around the block. I’m often asked what was my first new car and it was a 1957 Chevy. I didn’t get my first new car until after graduating from the University of North Carolina while I was in flight school in the Air Force.
The worst part was: rejection. I didn’t have any sales training. We had four used car dealerships. When I’d go in and say, “I’ve designed these ads for you …” The worst part was when they’d say, “Business has been slow. I don’t have the money to advertise this week.”
Lessons I learned on the job: Good advertising works. The neatest part was when I’d write an ad and call the dealership afterward and ask if it pulled in some traffic. The sales manager at Billy Black Cadillac would always call me and tell me, “That damn ad worked,” or if he thought we’d missed the mark.
At 16 I started at Stein Mart at 51st and Harvard in the accessories and men’s departments. Kind older gentlemen would walk in and ask me to pick out their clothes since they “had no clue,” which is funny because I clearly didn’t either as a 16-year-old. I’ve always loved working, and enjoyed my time there.
— Kim Kuehler, concessions sales manager, Tulsa International Airport
I was a houseboy (cleaned up stuff) in Saudi Arabia, when I was 13. It paid in riyals, so converted to dollars it was about 10 bucks an hour in 1979. Trash does not smell good at 120 degrees, by the way. I was using the money to buy an enlarger for my darkroom. We were there because my dad was working for the Corps of Engineers as a geologist.
I started working at Skateland when I was 14. I’d still do that job if I could afford to live on teenager wages for the rest of my life. I still love to skate, and I do it as much as possible. I take my family to Skateland as much as I can, although it isn’t quite the same as back when I could skate into the office/DJ booth and choose the next song.
— Leanna Reeder, public relations professional
I worked for Braniff Airlines in the Lima, Peru, airport. I worked in accounting and translated and even interpreted with what British English I knew. They were looking for bilingual students and came to our high school and selected three of us. I worked there only a year because I moved to the U.S.
— Tina Peña, associate professor of Spanish, Tulsa Community College
As a 16-year-old student at Nowata High School, I was hired as a window trimmer and worked in all departments of McCrory-McClellan Five and Dime in downtown Nowata. I priced stock in the basement stockroom, learned to cut window shades in the hardware department and worked the cash register, where we had to make change manually. I changed the window displays every few weeks, first cleaning the plate glass with only alcohol, which I hated because it was so hard to get them streak-free. Setting up the display of dishes was hard because of the glass shelves that had to be balanced or disaster ensued.
I got paid for farm work and kept my own money for selling and hauling firewood. My first job when I was 16 was at Subway making sandwiches. It was back when you had to cut a V in them. My 5- and 8-year-old boys think I still make a pretty good sandwich.
I worked at the Wendy’s in Bartlesville the summer after I turned 16. With my name, they were probably afraid not to hire me. I started working the salad bar and worked my way all the way up to cashier at the drive-thru window.
I worked at my uncle’s meat market at age 15. I worked the register and stocked shelves and avoided the meat freezer in the back at all costs as to not subject my eyes to the deer that met their demise.
— Ginny Hensley, vice president of communications, Housing Authority of the City of Tulsa
I was 16 and got a job flipping burgers at the brand new Burger Street opening at 21st and Harvard. Minimum wage was $3.35, which is what I got paid. I worked there about a year, but left the following summer to work at Godfather’s Pizza because they paid a whopping $3.50 an hour.
Those were good jobs for high-school kids in those days. You made enough to put gas in your car, pay your car insurance, have a little spending money, and you got an employee discount on the fast food you would be eating regularly anyway.
— Ed Sharrer, Destination Districts program manager, INCOG
At age 11 I was straight-commission selling University of Tulsa programs on 11th Street at football games and selling soda at Oiler Park. I learned to yell, “lucky number programs” and “ice cold pop.” I got the soda-selling job by hanging out at the ballpark. I would ride my bike there and hang out all day. They had to hire me to do something.
We grew up performing as a family, playing the violin and singing for churches, retirement homes, weddings, etc. It was a lot of work but always seemed like a great way to make money. My first “real” job was working at Freddy’s Frozen Custard in Wichita a couple summers during college — at one of the original locations, where Freddy himself would come and visit.
— Tara Rittler, web and social media editor, TulsaKids Magazine