Employee, 89, marks 70 years at same firm

Helen Salerno Dejana, 89, at the office where Helen Salerno Dejana, 89, at the office where she has worked as an office manager for the past 70 years. (June 19, 2012) Photo Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa

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Not many employees keep baby pictures of their bosses at home. But then again, not many employees were working at the company when their bosses were born, either.

Helen Salerno Dejana, 89, has been working at the same company for the past 70 years -- and has no plans to retire anytime soon.

"I've never really counted the years until now," the Port Washington senior said recently as she sat in her office at Higgins Fire Protection in Manhasset.

Dejana said that in 1942 a friend recommended her to the company's president, who hired her at her house.

"I can still see him coming up on my front porch," she said. " 'Are you Helen Salerno? Well, I'm George B. Higgins, and I want you to come work for me!' "

She did, assuming the work of a secretary and bookkeeper. After Dejana married in 1958 and had a son in 1959 and a daughter in 1963, she continued working part-time for the company, bringing work home to the office she kept in her basement while her mother helped with the children.

"I could take work home and work until midnight," she said. "I'd work all hours at home. It was important to me to continue, and I liked it."

She returned to the office full-time in the 1970s in the same capacity and has worked continuously since.

Dejana, who on a recent morning wore a smart beige pantsuit, said her daily office ritual begins the night before, when she straightens up her already immaculate desk and thinks about the next day's tasks.

"The next morning, I come in, and there's already in my mind what I need," she said.

Dejana recently cut down her hours, working only four days a week. She stopped driving last year, relying on family to drive her the roughly four miles between her home and the office. She still makes the daily bank deposits and handles the office mail, but her role has recently evolved to more of a supervisory one, said her current boss, Higgins' son, George B. Higgins Jr.

Higgins said Dejana has been more like family than an employee -- their two families have vacationed together in Rhode Island, and Higgins recalled many Italian dinners enjoyed at the Dejanas' home, complete with homemade wine.

Dejana is the company's longest-serving employee, but her brother-in-law, Jim Dejana, 80, is a close second. Jim, who designs fire sprinkler systems, has worked for Higgins for 54 years.

"The philosophy is there's no retirement policy," Higgins joked.

That suits Helen Dejana just fine. "I'd hate to leave," she said, "and I'm not going to."

About Helen Salerno Dejana

 

 

  • Has lived in the same house in Port Washington since 1927.
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  • Celebrated her 70th year of work on June 14.
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  • Cut down to working Mondays through Thursdays; stopped driving last winter.
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