Golden Girls on a roll
By JOHN REINAN, Times Correspondent
ST. PETERSBURG -- Those who mourn the end of the TV show The Golden Girls might want to join the AAA Auto Club South. The club has four trip counselors, ages 70 to 84, whose patter rivals that of a sitcom.
"I love telling people where to go!" cracks Marie Aragon, 70.
"Nobody knew my age until I was 79. Then I didn't care any more," says Doris Yahn, 84.
"Oh, the men come in to flirt with us," says 72-year-old Janet L. Hobson.
"People join the club just for us," adds Sue Garbart, 75.
Jokes aside, these women are serious about their work. At an age when most people have long since retired, they all put in 40 hours a week at the downtown St. Petersburg office, helping AAA members plan auto trips throughout the Western Hemisphere.
Their bosses say the Golden Girls -- yes, that's how they're known around the office -- set an example of productivity and dependability that younger workers would do well to follow.
"They're the oldest workers here, but they probably have the least amount of sick time," said Mark Moore, the St. Petersburg branch manager. "I'm so appreciative of their work ethic and their people skills."
Carole Sand, who supervises the auto club's 12 trip counselors, said the older workers have an attitude that younger generations don't always share.
"They're very dependable. They're always on time," she said. "And they probably have more knowledge than all the rest of us put together."
Yahn has been with AAA the longest: 35 years. Hobson has logged 25 years with the auto club, Garbart 17 and Aragon 16.
They've stayed for the income, certainly; all are either widowed or divorced, and they want to make a better living than Social Security provides. But they also say the work is fun and rewarding.
"People come in here and they're happy because they're going somewhere," Garbart said.
"We often help plan a trip for someone whose spouse has died, and this is the first time they've been traveling since," Aragon said. "We are truly counselors."
They take pride in the reputation of the St. Petersburg office, which they say is widely known for its quality service. Many Northern members planning a trip south for the winter do their planning through St. Petersburg rather than through their hometown branch, Yahn said.
"We sort of work up a clientele," she added. "We've worked with the same people for years. They come in and ask for us."
As a young woman, Hobson worked as a fashion model for department stores in St. Petersburg, including Webb's City, which had its heyday in the 1950s and early '60s.
Her work now isn't as glamorous, but she likes it just the same.
"I really enjoy people," she said. "And if I can help them have wonderful memories from their vacation, it makes me very happy."
There haven't been as many changes over the years as one might expect. The completion of the interstate highway system during the 1970s made trip planning easier, and the women say that most AAA members prefer to stick to the interstates and do their exploring once they've reached their destination.
The counselors still issue Trip Tiks, those maps with the suggested route outlined in green felt-tip marker.
And the most popular destinations have remained relatively stable over the years: New York, the Smoky Mountains, Atlanta, Savannah and Charleston.
"And Orlando!" several chime in at once.
But some clients need help with more ambitious trips. Aragon once helped a club member plan a three-year trip throughout North, Central and South America. Garbart had a client who wanted to visit all the lighthouses on the Atlantic coast from Key West to Portland, Maine.
And Yahn helped a self-declared evangelist who planned to visit every federal penitentiary in the United States.
"He wanted to save the prisoners," she said.
Hobson said the most common major trip for AAA members is a leisurely U.S. tour.
"Everybody wants to take that big circle trip around the United States, that once-in-a-lifetime trip," she said. Most take anywhere from three to six months for the journey.
The biggest change for the Golden Girls was when computers came in. The learning process wasn't fun, but they've all successfully made the transition.
"We can still learn something new every day," said Aragon. "Look at us -- we didn't know diddly squat about computers, but we learned."
But the computers are used mainly for administration and record-keeping. The actual trip planning still comes from the computer between the ears.
"Experience is the big thing," Yahn said. "They could hire four young girls to replace us, but they wouldn't have our knowledge."
That won't happen, according to branch manager Moore.
"It's a throwaway society, but we really do promote longevity here," he said. "Their years of experience do help our members. It's been good for me to see them in action."
Perhaps the Golden Girl ethic is best explained by the story of Garbart's daughter, a successful businesswoman who retired in her early 50s.
"My daughter tells me she wants me to retire," Garbart said. "She tells me, "Mom, I'm retired!'
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