They're Still Going Strong : He Packed His Bags Once, but Luggage Department Boss, 81, Is Back on Job

Times Staff Writer

They began working in the 1920s, and after 60-odd years on the job, they've more than earned the right to sit back and relax. But at a time when the vast majority of their contemporaries have long since called it quits, they refuse to retire.

Blessed with good health and indomitable spirits, 83-year-old Holly Lash Visel,81-year-old Carl Civic and 79-year-old Ferd Johnson remain not only willing but also able to continue working. For Visel, Civic and Johnson, their work is their pleasure and, for them, there's no end in sight.

Like comic George Burns, himself still going strong in his 80th year in show business, they believe it's best to keep working as long as they can. As the youthful 88-year-old Burns says, "You've got to do something that will get you out of bed."

Carl Civic seriously considered retiring last July when he was hospitalized with double pneumonia. But after being away from work five weeks, he was back on the job as manager of the luggage department at the Newport Beach Robinson's in Fashion Island.

"When I got through with my illness I felt I wanted to retire," said Civic, "but management pleaded with me to stay, and they said I could work any hours I wanted."

For 81-year-old Carl Civic, that lately has meant putting in more than 56 hours a week. December, after all, is a busy month in the retail world.

"This place couldn't run without me, believe me," said the German-born Civic with a smile, his arms folded across his chest as he surveyed his neat and orderly department. "I was off yesterday and it was as though the German army had marched through this place. I'm not kidding you. But you can't complain."

Civic had come in to work early, at 7:30, this particular morning to straighten out the department. "I'm just a workaholic, you know," he explained good-naturedly.

A trim, dapperly dressed man, with thin gray hair neatly combed and parted and fashionable wire-rim glasses, Civic is an early riser. He begins his day at 5 a.m. with a shower and then a cup of coffee while he reads the morning newspaper "to see what Reagan has to say" and to go over the department store ads "to see what the competition is doing."

"I'm here at 8," he explained. "I straighten up things and get the department ready for business--see what came in, mark down or mark up merchandise, transfer merchandise to other stores . . . . There's no dull moment in this place. I normally work four days a week, but many times I make it five days. It's up to me."

Civic is no newcomer to department stores. Upon arriving in New York City from Germany in 1927, he landed a job selling shoes at Macy's.

"When you arrive in this country, you just grab what you can grab," explained Civic, whose first name is Lothar. ("Everybody knows me under my middle name, Carl. Lothar is a crazy German name, but what in hell can I do? It was given to me.")

After a year at Macy's, Civic went to work selling luggage for John Wanamaker Department Store, where he worked for 17 years. He then ran a luggage department at Bullock's for 19 years and has managed Robinson's luggage department for 10 years.

Civic's enthusiasm for selling luggage has not waned--even after 46 years. He simply enjoys working.

"I certainly do," he said. "And I'm well known. When the president of the company comes to the store the first thing he says is, 'I want to see Carl.' I hate to brag about it."

Civic lives in an El Toro mobile home park with Barbara, 64, his wife of 25 years. "My wife runs a travel agency and I sell luggage--good combination, right?" he said, adding, "My wife is English--very, very British, but we get along fine."

While he acknowledges, "I'm always anxious to make money--after all, that's the main story of my life," Civic said he continues working primarily to stay healthy and eliminate boredom.

"You can call it my hobby," he said. "I have no other hobbies but my work. The main thing I enjoy is contact with the customers. I enjoy people, and people come to me because they know I am here for such a long time.

"I travel a lot and people ask me for travel advice. Since my wife is in the travel business, we're on the go constantly."

Globe Trotting

Indeed, the Civics spent 18 days in China last March, 18 days in Australia last October, and they are contemplating a trip to Singapore next spring.

Actually, Civic tried retiring once--"in 1974 when I left Bullock's. I stayed home for four weeks and said that's not for me."

And it's still not for him.

"All you would do is be bored and eat every five minutes, and watching TV during the day is a pain--daytime shows, no way," he said. "I would not have been happy retiring."

Had he done so after his illness last July, he added with a conspiratorial smile, "I probably would have looked for another job."

He concedes that "when my wife ever retires, then I will retire, too, and we will sit home and do whatever we want to do. But that's far off."

Just then, the phone rang and Civic excused himself. It was time to get back to work.

"Tell me what is the problem?" Civic asked the customer on the phone. "What? Yes. What kind of luggage do you want? Yes, we have it in blue or green . . . ."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World