The woman behind Springfield’s Mr. Handy: ‘Everybody needs to know that they’re capable’

Credit: Bill Lackey

Credit: Bill Lackey

A job can be just a job, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

But a mission is something else.

Just when, in her 40-plus years at Mr. Handy, Bonnie Proper flipped the switch to the latter isn’t clear.

But Proper — the last name rhymes with chauffeur — seems to be on a mission whenever she answers the phone or a customer walks through the door of her store just east of the intersection of John and Limestone streets.

“When I started here, I’d ask (customers) for a model number for a fill hose,” she said.

That ended the day a guy on the other end of the line said, “Honey, you don’t need a model for a fill hose. They’re all the same.”

For the woman who has long since become the go-to person in the urgent care of Springfield appliances, that memory belongs with the ancient toasters and vacuums displayed like dinosaurs in her shop’s front window.

It all began in 1974, the year she graduated from high school in Columbus and Ted Kerchansky took her on at All City Parts store through a temp agency. Hired to do inventory, she proved to be a natural in getting people on the other side of the counter the hoses, heating elements, pumps and other parts they needed to get their washers, dryers, stoves and refrigerators back in service to keep their families fed and in clean clothes.

Kerchansky brought her to Springfield in 1981 after he opened and named it Mr. Handy for two reasons: one, Springfield had a hardware with the name handyman, which he used for his other stores; and two, he didn’t foresee that, over time, Proper would make the name Mrs. Handy a far better fit.

“I was so young then that I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into,” she said.

Credit: Bill Lackey

Credit: Bill Lackey

A self-described schmoozer, she was sure footed in the “counter part” of the work: taking orders, finding parts and placing orders.

She found the goings in the back room — “the business end of it” — a different kind of encounter. She took charge of that in 1995, when her first husband agreed to take out a mortgage on the house to buy the business she alone would run.

In a field that’s been remade time and again by waves of technological and manufacturing change, she said, “I’ve learned a lot,” and she is constantly learning more.

One thing she’s learned is, in the fix-it field, honesty is not only the best policy but the most productive.

“If I don’t know, I just tell them,” she said. She then asks a customer to call back if a solution is found. Their problems, of course, will repeat as hers, well, except for the guy whose dryer problem was caused by the baby possum that crawled in the exhaust vent and met its end in a rotating fan.

“There are a lot of birds in dryer vents,” Proper said, “and mice are the worst.”

Proper also has learned how to save time by interrupting tragic sagas of appliance malfunction with timely questions.

That comes into play mot times she picks up the phone and says: “Mr. Handy, this is Bonnie speaking.”

To a customer with a cranky clothes washer, she first offers reassurance: “If it spins, it still works.” She then asks whether the washer is making sounds ‘like an airplane landing on your house.” Getting a firm affirmative, she spells out two options.

1. “You can run until it dies, or the neighbors call the cops.”

2. “You can replace the bearings.”

An ailing oven inquiry takes longer to sort out.

“So, it won’t bake or broil, but the surface elements work … Does your oven light work?

After noting that “the clock is what feeds the oven” she surmises, “it’s got to be up with the clock … unless it’s a bad wire.”

Somewhere during the conversation, she registers a sincere complaint about the part both for her and her customer: “For some reason, this goofy thing is $250.”

Erin Sweitzer, leaning on the counter with an on-the-fritz heating element of a Maytag washer, has been a fan of Proper’s since tagging along to Mr. Handy with her parents as a child.

“I was always fascinated with her.”

And the relationship has made dollars and sense.

“I’ve had this dryer since I moved to my house six years ago, and I probably change (the element) once a year. She keeps my stuff running.”

“She kind of teaches me most of it,” then adds, “They’re lovely here.”

Proper has also been around long enough to be able to reminisce with return customers about fond memories of past repairs.

James Geron dropped by to get a heating element for a stove built into a house built in 1969 of which he is he second owner. Having replaced the stove’s rusted out range hood with parts from Mr. Handy years ago, his car knows the way.

Like an expert dealer on Antiques Road Show, Proper tells him the element he brought in “may be the original.”

Antiquary resurfaces on another call, when Proper says, “I have to see your old one. Bring it in.” Just before hanging up, she chips in, “We do carry vacuum cleaner bags and belts.”

Proper said appliances are “harder and easier to work on” now.

“The internet has everything on it. If you’re not sure (how to make a repair or locate a part), you can find that.”

Construction is another matter. Fifty years ago, “things were built like tanks,” she said. “Now they’re easier to take apart but harder to diagnose because they’re all electronics. And the increasing use of circuit boards makes repairs costly enough that buying a new one makes more sense, particularly on refrigerators.”

Still, “I love my job,” she said. You’re not going to get rich doing this, but if you like people, fun to do. You get up in the morning (thinking), ‘Let’s see what the day’s going to bring us’ — and you never know.”

“Every day you learn something; it keeps your brain active.”

Most of all, though, she enjoys the satisfaction fixing things gives to others.

" I think the best thing about this job, to be honest with you, is when a woman — and it can be a man — but often it’s a woman, says, ‘Bonnie, it’s working.’”

Although they usually thank her, she tells them: “You did it, you were able to fix it yourself.”

“Look at the confidence it builds in that person,” she said.

“Everybody right now is struggling to put food on their table, raise kids and keep them safe.”

“To be out there for each other and help raise them up — that’s what God wants us to do: to be out there for others and help and raise them up. Everybody needs to know that they’re capable, that they can make a difference,” she said.

In in the time-honored field of Appliance Urgent Care, that’s the mission Bonnie Proper is on.

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