By Keysha Drexel
When Van Hoover’s colleagues at BL Harbert International threw a party for her earlier this month, the occasion not only celebrated her 90th birthday but also honored her more than half-century of service at the company.
Hoover, a Bluff Park resident, has worked as an executive assistant at the company since Jan. 1, 1951.
But when she first came to work for BL Harbert, she had no idea she’d still be there 63 years later, Hoover said.
Her older sister, Rex Barrington, was John M. Harbert’s secretary in 1951 and told Hoover about a job opening at the company.
“I wasn’t really looking for a job, but they needed someone to help type W-2s so I came in to help, thinking I’d only be there about two weeks,” she said.
Hoover started as a typist and was soon the late Bill L. Harbert’s executive secretary. She eventually became the company’s assistant corporate secretary.
“Until the day he died, Bill got the biggest kick out of telling the story of how I started here, and he would always tell people I was a slow learner,” Hoover said.
When Hoover began working at BL Harbert, the company had only a few employees, she said. The company’s offices were at 2208 Eighth Ave. South in Birmingham at the time.
“It was John and Bill Harbert, Ed Dixon, Ted Randolph, Charles DeBardeleben, Louise Daniel and my sister and I and that was it,” she said. “Now, this company has thousands of employees all over the world.”
And Hoover said she’s known many of those employees–and their parents– since they were in diapers.
“The grandson of Ted (Randolph) works here. Ted will be 93 in December,” she said. “I’ve seen generations of employees come through during my time here.”
And Hoover knows most of their birthdays by heart–no Google calendar reminder needed.
“Of course I know everyone’s birthday–I remember when most of these people were born,” she said. “To be a good colleague and friend, those are the kinds of things that you keep track of and remember.”
It wasn’t long after Hoover started working at BL Harbert that she had lots of birthdays to remember. Hoover said as the company grew, so did her responsibilities.
“The company just kept growing and growing and they needed help, so I stayed on to do what I could,” she said. “They needed help in accounts payable, so I had to learn the bookkeeping machine. They needed help with payroll, so I learned to do that. I picked up as much as I could as quickly as I could.”
Soon, Hoover became known as Bill L. Harbert’s right-hand man, and the two professionals formed a lifelong bond.
“I always say that you didn’t work for Bill Harbert, you worked with him, and that preposition makes all the difference,” she said. “His greatest asset was his compassion for other people. His son, Billy, is a lot like his father in that way. He just had a birthday on May 23.”
Hoover said up until Bill Harbert’s death in June 2012, she and he would meet at the office every morning at 6 a.m. to discuss the day’s agenda over coffee.
“We had a relationship made in heaven that was based on complete trust,” Hoover said. “He knew I’d get the job done. He could start talking and I’d finish his sentences–that’s how close we were.”
Before his death, Harbert said Hoover knew the company as well as he did.
“She’s privy to the most confidential negotiations within the company, and if she were to leave, I would, too,” Harbert wrote in a company newsletter congratulating Hoover on her 35th year at the company.
Hoover said much of her work success comes down to showing up and being willing to do a good job every single day.
“I had worked here 40 years without missing a day until I fell and broke my hip,” she said. “I’ve been very lucky to be healthy and be able to keep working.”
When she reached her 60s, Hoover said, the questions about when she might retire became more frequent.
“It seemed like everybody was ready for me to retire, except for me,” she said. “But I knew I had more good years left in me and more to give to the company, so here I am, 30 years past retirement age.”
Besides, Hoover said, there’s nothing really about the thought of retirement that appeals to her.
“I’ve never been much for playing bingo or that sort of thing, and I don’t really care to travel,” she said. “I’m doing exactly what I want to do, and not many people can say that.”
Hoover said she thinks the loyalty she feels to BL Harbert is something not many employees feel these days.
“I wish everybody could work for a company and for people that they believe in and that believe in them, but I don’t see that happening in other places much anymore,” she said. “There’s no real loyalty from employees to their employers, and it works the other way, too. People used to know that a company would take care of them if they were loyal and worked hard, and not too many companies still work like that.”
Hoover said she’s seen the business world change in a lot of good ways–more women in senior roles in the workplace–and in some bad ways, too. She said she’s learned the best companies are the ones where there’s a team mentality.
“We should never get carried away with building up own empires but try to work together for the good of the company,” she said. “Competition is healthy, but not within a company.”
In addition to giving her a unique perspective on changes in the business world, Hoover said she thinks staying in the workforce has benefited her in many ways.
“I’m always learning something new, whether it’s computers or email, and I’m always talking to folks, and there’s a lot to remember in this job, so I think it has really helped my mind stay sharp,” she said.
Hoover said she doesn’t follow any special diet or exercise routine but eats sensibly and tries to stay active.
“I think when people stop staying active, the trouble starts. You can’t just sit down and wait for the end,” she said. “Every morning that you put your feet on the floor, you have to thank the good Lord that you can get up and go to work again.”
Hoover said her strong work ethic is something she supposes she has had her entire life.
In 1941, she graduated from Shades Cahaba High School, a high school in the Jefferson County System from 1920 to 1949. The renovated building now houses Shades Cahaba Elementary School on Independence Drive at the intersection of Hollywood Boulevard in Homewood.
“I graduated from high school and started working the very next day,” Hoover said. “My first job was at First National Bank’s Woodlawn branch. I was a secretary there.”
Hoover said her family’s love and support is another reason she’s still young at heart.
“From the very beginning, my husband was supportive of my career, and that’s no small thing because at that time, not a lot of women were working full time,” Hoover said.
Hoover’s husband, James, was her childhood sweetheart. They met when James moved next door to her when she was just 6 years old and living in the Oxmoor Valley area in the 1930s. The couple married on March 8, 1944 and had two daughters, Sherry and Sandy.
“Like I said, I wasn’t really looking for a job when my sister told me they needed help at Harbert,” Hoover said. “I had two little girls who were just starting school at that time.”
But as much as her family needed her at home, Hoover said she also knew she was needed at work.
“I have always felt like I was doing something useful, something helpful here, and everybody wants to feel useful, no matter who they are or how old they are,” she said.
At a time when most Alabama families did not have both parents working full time outside the home, Hoover and her husband were pioneers when it came to sharing the responsibilities of being working parents.
“When I started working at Harbert, my husband switched his shift at the railroad so that he worked nights,” Hoover said. “He was home with the girls during the day when I was at work, and I was at home with them at night while he was at work. It worked out perfectly for us, and we were very lucky for that.”
Hoover said the arrangement not only meant she could work with peace of mind knowing that her children were being taken care of but also resulted in her husband and daughters sharing a close bond.
“He got a chance to spend time with the girls that a lot of other fathers back then and even today don’t have a chance to do,” Hoover said. “The girls got the chance to spend so much time and have so much fun with their father.”
James retired from L&N Railroad and passed away July 18, 1986.
Sherry Askew, the couple’s older daughter, lives in Auburn and has four children–Clay, Robyn, Lee and Misty. Hoover’s younger daughter, Sandy, lives about three blocks from her mother and has two children, Andrea and Bryan.
“My children still think I hung the moon, and I let them keep thinking that,” Hoover said.
Hoover said she gives young women starting out in their careers today the same advice she gave Sherry and Sandy.
“I’ve always been an independent woman, and I taught my daughters to be independent, too,” she said. “I always taught them to work hard and to give their employers 115 percent every single day, and they’re both doing just fantastic in their careers.”
Hoover said with more than six decades of service under her belt, she has learned that some of the most important business assets have nothing to do with skills.
“I think it all comes down to attitude,” she said. “You have to have a good attitude about your job and be thankful that you have a job. When you get a good (work) opportunity, you go with it and do the very best that you can.”
Hoover said she believes that same philosophy is a good way to approach life outside of the office, too.
“I’ve never been a big one to complain about anything because the way I look at it, if you’re not happy, find what makes you happy, but don’t ever expect something for nothing,” she said. “Anything worth doing is going to require a good attitude and hard work.”
Hoover’s work ethic is so relentless that she didn’t even let her own 90th birthday party keep her from her duties very long.
“Billy (Harbert) wanted to do a big gala-type party, and I didn’t go for that. I played on his sympathies and told him that at 90, you should have the kind of party you want,” she said. “So we had some cookies and they played ‘I Don’t Need Your Rocking Chair’ by George Jones over the office intercom, and it was a great party. After that, I went back to work for the rest of the day.”
Hoover said she has no plans to retire anytime soon.
“I guess I’ll work until I can’t accomplish something here anymore,” she said. “And I’ll be the first to know when that time is. I have a little saying that goes, ‘I know I’m not the brightest bulb on the tree, but I know all my bulbs are still lit.’ I still think I have something to contribute here, and I truly enjoy every day at work.”
But just because she’s not letting her age slow her down at work doesn’t mean Hoover doesn’t like to take advantage of her senior employee status at the office from time to time.
“When you’re almost 100 years old, people won’t say too much to you because they’re afraid you might drop dead and have a heart attack, so I get by with a lot of stuff,” she said.