NEW ULM - Until the final hour when the New Ulm Kmart locked its doors for good, New Ulm resident Marge Hames kept up her 79-day effort to show the store's employees how much they meant to her.
Hames, 74, began protesting the planned closure on March 23. She was never under any illusions that her display would stop the liquidation of the store. She only cared about giving a voice to the store's employees and providing a clear expression of how much she appreciated them.
"I felt that somebody should do something. Then, I thought, 'Well, I'm somebody.' I just did it so that [the employees] would know somebody cared," said Hames.
Hames' love affair with the New Ulm Kmart began 34 years ago when she moved into town. She loved the products and prices at the store, which was the only "big box" store in town at the time. What kept her coming back, year after year, were the bonds she forged with the store's workers.
"They were great at helping you. They made you feel special. I developed very good friends with some of the people that worked there," said Hames.
Armed with only with signs that read "Keep Kmart Open" and "These 'associates' are friends, neighbors and family," Hames turned out nearly every day from March 23 to the June 10 closure, with the exception of Sundays and Easter.
The protest was Hames' first attempt at a feat like this, and she was caught off guard by some of its challenges. Kmart company policy only allowed her to protest across the street from the store. She faced freezing temperatures in the early few weeks and drenching rain for days during the wet spring. She also trudged through days of blasting heat. She joked that it gave her the first tan of her life. She went home exhausted most days.
She also had positive experiences to help her. She enjoyed widespread support from New Ulm residents, most commonly by people honking or shouting support when they passed in their cars. She was the subject of several media reports, including a short audio documentary. The documentary was produced by communication professors Dave Engen, of MSU-Mankato, and Robert Jersak, of Century College, for Third Coast Audio Festival in Chicago, Ill. Engen said they chose Hames as their subject because of her support for her neighbors and her dedication to her community. The documentary can be heard at thirdcoast.herokuapp.com/tracks/204.
"I didn't expect any attention like this. I was just wanted to do something I knew I could do. I didn't realize other people would be so interested," said Hames.
Support from Kmart employees meant the most to Hames. A few weeks into her protest, the workers surprised her with a folding camp chair they bought to show appreciation for her efforts. Hames was also invited to the employee luncheon held on the store's final day. Store Manager Tom Paluch told her that she had to attend because she was family to them.
The store's final days were very emotional for her. She continued to advocate for the store, saying the corporation should be the one tightening its belt for such a special store.
Looking forward, Hames doesn't know what she will do with her free time. However, she said will focus on something simple, like cleaning her house.
(Josh Moniz can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org)