Trish Yerges
The La Grande Observer

Mike Lester of La Grande is a solid contender for holding the record for being a McDonald’s employee for the longest time in the U.S. He recently marked 30 years with the chain, and being only 51, he has a real shot at surpassing the current 44-year record before he retires.

For the past three decades, Lester, who is called “Mikey” by his boss, Beau Willadsen, and coworkers, has been clocking in at 9 a.m. and out at 2 p.m. Monday through Friday at McDonald’s. He takes the taxi three miles to work each morning, and for those five hours each day he is the “King of Cleanliness,” assigned to keep everything outside the kitchen area clean, swept and inviting to customers.

He recalled the circumstances that led to his hire 30 years ago.

“I was working for New Day Enterprises, and they got me this job at McDonald’s on Nov. 21, 1987. I never thought I would ever work at McDonald’s,” he said appreciatively.

Lester was born with a cognitive disability, but he has more than a dozen strengths that compensate for it. He has a steel-trap memory, learns quickly and needs little or no supervision. He’s self-motivated and hard-working and strives for excellence. He knows exactly where cleaning products and tools are kept and how to use them. He works at a fast clip, efficiently and competently.

“It’s easy work,” he said modestly. “I clean the lobby, wash tables down, fill condiment containers, sweep and mop floors, remove garbage and wash windows.”

He also cleans the restrooms and the Playland area, but he takes his greatest pride in keeping the lobby clean. One might call it “Lester’s Lobby” because he’s won a number of awards over the years for his efforts.

Customers have noticed Lester’s Lobby, and he’s received a lot of compliments.

“People tell me, ‘You’re doing a good job. Whenever you’re not here, it’s not the same,’” Lester said.

He’s cordial to the customers, but he has disciplined himself to focus on giving his employer quality work.

“When I’m working, I will say hi to the customers, but I’m not there to talk. I’m there to do a job,” he said.

It’s that dedicated work ethic that has kept him employed at McDonald’s for so many years, and he has set quite an example in that regard, balancing honest work with a necessary customer-friendly rapport.

With this routine, the years sped by, first 20 years, then 25 years, but then one day in August 2013, the unexpected happened. Lester slipped on some water on the floor in the lobby, and he fell. In fact, he broke his hip.

“I was (taken by) LifeFlight to Providence St. Mary’s Medical Center in Walla Walla,” he said.

There he underwent successful hip surgery and completed physical therapy for the next four months. All the while, he was worried that he wouldn’t be able to go back to work.

“I’d like to work here as long as I can,” he said.

However, he made a good recovery, and in December 2013 he returned to work, but with one important change in his work attire.

“I bought myself some non-skid shoes, and I wear those now,” he said. “I go through shoes like nothing, maybe three or four pairs in a year.”

With a newfound grip on the soles of his feet, Lester returned to the job he loved, taking care of the restaurant and greeting customers.

For many years to come, he plans to continue saying to his customers, “Welcome to my lobby, my nice clean lobby, and enjoy your food here.”