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End of an era: Elburn pharmacist's retirement ends nearly 70-year tradition

ELBURN – After watching Ken Gustafson spend decades working as a pharmacist in Elburn, one of his sons said it was wonderful to see his father finally relaxing and doing what he loved.

There his father was, out removing snow from neighbors’ driveways on a frigid winter morning in Elburn, “just because he could,” Jon Gustafson said.

In late December, Ken Gustafson, 66, retired from his position as a pharmacist at the Elburn Jewel-Osco. That ended a significant era in the village. Previously, Gustafson and his wife, Mary, had run Gliddon’s Drug Store in downtown Elburn, from 1982 through 2007, when Jewel-Osco came to town. Before that, they worked at Gliddon’s under Mary Gustafson’s father, Almer Gliddon, who bought the store in 1946.

Ken and Mary Gustafson went to work as pharmacists at Jewel-Osco. Mary Gustafson retired as a pharmacist five years ago at age 62, but she still works at the store. Ken Gustafson is done working there, but he left an impression. Linda Wiss, the store’s director of pharmacy, called him “absolutely one of a kind, absolutely the best kind there is.”

“He refreshed everybody,” Wiss said. “He is the real deal. Nothing stops him from taking care of everybody. … He’ll take the time to take care of every single customer. I feel honored to have worked with him for 71/2 years, and I am blessed to call him a friend.”

Mary Gustafson said pharmacies always had been a part of her life. Her grandfather, George Wilcox, ran Wilcox Pharmacy in Hampshire. Also, there were uncles involved in pharmacy, and, of course, her father. Ken Gustafson didn’t intend to go into pharmacy at first, having graduated from Northern Illinois University with a marketing degree. But in the 1970s, he met his future wife. They both worked at the St. Charles Chronicle, a predecessor to the Kane County Chronicle, and their desks were near each other.

After Almer Gliddon indicated he was “getting old,” Mary and Ken Gustafson both went to study pharmacy in St. Louis, understanding that Gliddon soon might be looking to retire. By 1981, Mary Gustafson was working at her father’s shop, and her husband was working at drug stores in the Tri-Cities area. By 1982, Gliddon sold the store to his daughter and son-in-law, although he continued to work there for a time. But for most of the next 25 years, Ken and Mary Gustafson were the only pharmacists in Elburn at their shop at 116 N. Main St.

Their sons, Jon and Eric, said they spent as much time at the shop as they did at home. The entire family worked there, and an uncle worked in the same part of the building. The brothers said they loved their jobs, and they said it was an enjoyable way of life, but it did mean their parents couldn’t both take a vacation at the same time. Their parents both fielded calls after the store closed, and the brothers said they always did what they could to accommodate customers.

Jon Gustafson lives in Elburn. He is studying to be a nurse. Eric Gustafson lives in Texas, where he is a police officer. They both remember working at the store.

“I think as soon as I was tall enough to reach the cash register, I was in there as a clerk, stocking shelves and checking expiration dates,” Jon Gustafson said, adding, “it never really felt like work for me.”

He said he learned to have a sense of community. He would see friends and relatives all the time. But he wished he had been able to take vacations with both parents.

Eric Gustafson said when he was a fifth-grader, he started dusting some shelves, and “it turned into doing a little bit of everything.”

“Being that it was a small town, and being that it was so close to our home anyway, it was an extension of home,” he said. “I have a lot of memories about that place. Being in town, close to our house, if you wanted to see mom or dad, that’s where you would go. … A lot of work was put in, but it didn’t feel that you were stuck at work.”

Ken Gustafson described it as a different time in the village. In the downtown area, there was his store, and Dave Anderson, now the village president, ran a grocery store. And the store Ken Gustafson called the “survivor,” Ream’s Elburn Market, remains in downtown Elburn, as popular as ever.

Anderson called the Gustafsons “public servants in their business.” He mentioned how they gave out their home numbers so they could be reached after hours.

“They were, in my opinion, a prime example of hometown Americana,” Anderson said, noting the family members remain involved in village activities. Gliddon was a Village Board member, and his wife, Margaret, was a school board member. The Gustafsons are active in the Elburn Lions Club. Ken Gustafson is on the village’s police pension board. Mary Gustafson is on the planning commission.

Anderson said he was happy for them.

“They are great people,” he said. “I feel I have been blessed to have known folks like that.”

At their home, the Gustafsons spread out newspaper reports through the years, showing significant moments, such as the sale of the store to Jewel-Osco. While they said many considered that to be the end of an era in the village, they said it actually worked out well for them. They were able to be employees at a place and take vacations together.

“It was good for us and good for Jewel,” Ken Gustafson said, adding most customers followed them to the much larger store. “A lot of times, you go to a chain drug store, and it’s like you are a number.” He said it wasn’t like that at all.

Wiss said it indeed was good for Jewel-Osco. The pharmacy manager said she learned a lot from the Gustafsons and worked especially closely with Ken Gustafson. Wiss said she has been at the Elburn Jewel-Osco store since it opened. She said she went to Gliddon’s before the store closed to meet with Ken Gustafson and “you get an immediate good feeling about him. You can feel the warmth.”

“He is passionate about what he does, and he is dedicated to the community,” she said. “He is unbelievably generous, completely genuine. He is an all-around big-hearted guy.”

Neither Jon nor Eric Gustafson followed the path of pharmacy, though they said they both greatly respect their parents. Jon Gustafson said he did “really think about it and considered it.”

“After seeing how hard my father worked, the long hours … I know he loved what he did, but I’ve always enjoyed being outdoors, and standing behind a desk 10 hours a day didn’t appeal to me,” Jon Gustafson said. “My dad was gone before I would get up to go to school, and he would get home after I was in bed sometimes. … He always prided himself on never making any mistakes. That’s partially why he stayed a little bit longer. He put a lot of thought into it.”

The brothers said they were happy to see their parents be able to enjoy more time together after the store closed. But they both acknowledged the town likely forever changed at that point.

“It definitely felt like the end of the small-town feel, when my parents decided it was time to hang it up,” Eric Gustafson said. “It changed the small-town dynamic a little bit.”

Ken Gustafson said he understood that many people felt that way.

“You always feel kind of sad to see the end of an era,” he said. “But we’re at an age where we want to slow down a little.”

So, it’s back to plowing his neighbors’ driveways and, once it gets warmer, cutting their grass, too. Perhaps, he said, he’ll add a part-time job down the road.

Wiss said she wasn’t surprised to hear that Ken Gustafson was keeping busy after retiring.

“He’s that guy,” she said. “On his day off, he doesn’t know how to sit there with idle hands. He’s a really good guy.”

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