Kevin Riordan: A driver with a driven spirit

Bill Hansen, 95, of Westmont, at his desk at Hutchinson plumbing in Cherry Hill. He got his first job at 16, in Jersey City, and has worked ever since. KEVIN RIORDAN / Staff
Bill Hansen, 95, of Westmont, at his desk at Hutchinson plumbing in Cherry Hill. He got his first job at 16, in Jersey City, and has worked ever since. KEVIN RIORDAN / Staff (Bill Hansen, 95, of Westmont)
Posted: March 29, 2012

A horse named Herbie drew Bill Hansen's milk wagon through the early morning streets of Jersey City.

"Herbie knew the route by heart," says Hansen, a Westmont resident who delivers construction-permit applications - by car - for a Cherry Hill plumbing company.

He's worked there full time for 30 years. He even works on birthdays, including his 95th, which was Tuesday.

"I've been blessed," says Hansen, a father of two, grandfather of six, and great-grandfather of seven. "I made a few mistakes, and I pray for forgiveness for that. But I had a good woman."

He met Dorothy Rich in the mid '30s, at a German American social club in Jersey City. "We went out for seven years, until her father, who never swore, told me, 'You lobster, . . . you better not break her heart.' "

Hansen converted to Catholicism so the sweethearts could have a church wedding in 1941. They were married for six decades, including eight years when he visited her daily in a nursing home after she collapsed at their favorite Atlantic City casino.

Dot died in 2005. He'll never stop missing her.

"It's tough, and that's one of the main reasons I stay here," Hansen says on Tuesday, at the start of his day as permit coordinator at Hutchinson Plumbing Heating Cooling on Chapel Avenue.

He delivers applications and pays for and picks up municipal permits required for certain projects.

The company was founded 63 years ago in Haddonfield by George Hutchinson, whom Hansen knew well.

"Bill helps us maintain the family culture," says company president and CEO Fred Hutchinson, who is George's grandson. "He's strong, he really works. It's incredible, the way he moves around."

Hansen does seem decades younger than 95. He lives in his own apartment and is active with the Haddonfield Lions Club and at Christ the King Catholic Church, where he managed a girls' drum-and-bugle corps for years and still helps serve Mass.

"My health is great. I don't take any medicine," he says, in a voice that retains its Jersey City toughness.

"What's your secret?" I ask. "Clean living?"

Not so much, laughs Hansen, who likes a cold beer, a hand of poker, and Harrah's slots ("double down, 10 quarters at a time") now and then.

His father, a supervisor with a grocery chain, "was a real hard worker. He had a job all through the Depression," explains Hansen, who was 16 when he started clerking in one of his father's stores.

That was in 1933. He's been employed ever since, always willing to toil longer and harder than the other guys.

Hansen went from laborer to foreman at the old Cramp shipyard, in Philadelphia. After World War II he drove a bus in South Jersey for a bit, and later worked part time behind the counter at Smitty's, a delicatessen on Haddon Avenue.

A call from a friend helped him land a "dream job" with Standard Oil Co. in Philadelphia, and gave the blue-collar son of Jersey City's Greenville section a white-collar career.

Hired as a truck driver, Hansen worked his way up to salesman. Home heating oil was the product, and a savvy, personable, energetic fellow with only a year of high school could do fine if he did right.

Hansen learned the business by making cold calls at a time when a gallon cost 13 cents and a penny discount could clinch a deal.

"When I was 54 I became sales supervisor. I had 27 salesmen and three plants under me," he says. "To become a supervisor, you had to have an outstanding sales record."

Hansen retired in 1982 and joined Hutchinson's not long after.

"I learned how to sell plumbing and heating, and then to do permits, and here I am," he says.

"It keeps me active, and gives me a little bit of spending money. And I like the people."

Does he ever plan to retire for real?

"I don't think so," Hansen says. "I'll wait until the good Lord tells me it's time to quit. He hasn't said that yet."


Contact Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845 or kriordan@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @inqkriordan. Read the metro columnists' blog, "Blinq," at www.philly.com/blinq.

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