Almost 91, the 'bra lady' flirting with retirement
PITTSFIELD — At an age when the working life has become a distant memory for most people, Betty Burke has no plans to slow down.
Burke will be 91 in July, but she still cleans her house and yard, tends the garden, often mows the lawn, and shovels snow off the walkways at the house on Plastics Avenue where she has lived since 1946. Her only concession to age: she no longer drives at night.
"I cut, I rake, I plant, I trim," said Burke, a widow who lives with her cat, Sammy. "I keep taking bags to the landfill. Al out there knows me."
She also works — at least she did until March, when she lost her job in the lingerie department at Macy's when the chain closed its store at the Berkshire Mall in Lanesborough.
But Burke doesn't consider herself officially retired. "Well, sort of," she said. "We'll see."
If Burke does go back to work — she's contemplating approaching another lingerie store chain for a job — her regular customers will be extremely happy.
To them, Burke is the consummate professional; After all, she has been selling lingerie since the 1970s at a series of Berkshire County department stores, including England Brothers, Steiger's, Filene's and finally Macy's.
"Fortunately, or unfortunately, I'm known as the bra lady," Burke said with a laugh. She was given the name while working at England Brothers, and it stuck.
"But it's fine," Burke said. "It's a wonderful title."
Here's just a smattering of the praise that customers have bestowed on the bra lady:
"She would try to give the best price, and was extremely helpful and knowledgeable," said Judy Bercury, of Pittsfield. "She was inspirational."
"Friendly and helpful," said Judy Casey, of Hinsdale. "I thought she was an exceptional sales clerk."
"Betty in lingerie is a saint!," wrote a third customer.
Burke so impressed Aline Drescher, of Lanesborough, that she wrote a letter praising Burke's qualities to the Macy's personnel manager in 2014.
"She not only knew all the merchandise and what would perhaps work for me, but she was kind, patient, extremely professional and just a joy to work with," Drescher wrote. "I went out after 2 hours with everything I needed, which I had been looking for — for a couple of years!!!
"Please make her the Employee of the Year or something better!!!"
Burke is proud of these accolades and takes pride in her work.
"I'm a lingerie specialist," Burke said. "I knew my merchandise. I took care of these ladies, and I worked one-on-one."
Burke, who has four grown children that all live outside Berkshire County, began working at England Brothers to pick up additional income for her family. Her late husband, Tom Burke, who died in 1995, was a truck driver for Continental Bakery.
Burke started at England Brothers in the home section, but was soon switched to lingerie because the store needed a salesperson there, and she said, "they didn't want a teenybopper."
It was at England Brothers that Burke learned the ins and out of the job.
"You did one-on-one, then you'd ask questions," she said. "The lady I worked with had a vast knowledge. Then we used to go to seminars with all the different companies."
Being personable with your customers is a requisite to selling lingerie, she said.
"You get a customer and you work with that customer until that customer catches up with you," she said. "You make sure that customer is happy enough. You know you can make mistakes and the option is that if it doesn't fit that you can come back and see me again."
Career highlights include waiting on Nat King Cole's widow, Maria, who lived in Tyringham, at Steiger's — "a few times," Burke said. "She was great to talk to."
She also helped a woman who had recently undergone a mastectomy find a bra that would fit her.
"She said she told her doctor in Boston that she would never be able to get fitted," Burke said. "When she walked out she was so happy."
Burke said she felt "wonderful" watching that woman walk out of the store.
"It's part of my job," she said. "But it still gives you the most greatest feeling that somebody went through a lot and you were able to help her."
Contact Tony Dobrowolski at 413-496-6224.
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