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Benefield: Santa Rosa octogenarian finds purpose, pleasure in work

On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, Don Silva has a Caesar salad for lunch. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, it’s a sandwich.

But Silva doesn’t usually know what kind of sandwich Ann, his wife of 42 years, has whipped up for him until he unzips his blue and silver lunchbox at a table in the fifth-floor lunch room of Anderson, Zeigler, a Santa Rosa law firm where he works.

Silva, 86, and his office, are a picture of order.

His office, east-facing with a window that shows the mountains that border Rincon Valley, has a brand new 32-inch computer monitor, a scanning machine and a cart with cardboard boxes.

In the corner are the boxes filled with documents Silva has successfully scanned. When those are gone, more boxes are carted in.

His job? Scan and digitize every piece of paper in every box and label his work. He’s been hired to help the decades-old law firm go digital.

And he loves it.

‘I love to work’

At an age when some folks are eyeing their next vacation or scheduling a round of golf, or heaven forbid, battling health issues, Silva is readying himself for his nearly eight-hour work day, five days a week.

“I have a great work ethic,” Silva said Tuesday morning from his office. “I love to work. I want to be a productive member of society.”

And after a tumultuous nearly two years of the COVID-19 pandemic and on the heels of a new year when many among us have resolutions to cut back, do a little bit less, maybe refocus our time and energy away from work, Silva is having none of it.

He loves this — the getting up early, the morning routine and dapper dressing, the banter with colleagues in the break room, the getting things done. He’s all about it.

“I’ve died and gone to heaven,” he said.

He may be new to the firm — he started at the beginning of December — but Silva has almost never not worked.

He was an auto parts salesperson working on commission for decades. Then he trained as a transit bus driver. He drove for Golden Gate Transit.

He was hired as a bus driver for the city of Santa Rosa and did that for about five years before moving over to being a service representative — a sort of goodwill ambassador — for another 12 years.

His “office” was outside in the Transit Mall downtown, a stone’s throw from his current digs.

“When I was with the city it was outdoors, in all different weather conditions, whether it was 100 degrees or 30 degrees, and that was tough,” he said.

And the standing eight hours a day, that got to him a little too. After all, he was in his 70s by then.

But the pandemic shut it all down. He was suddenly at home.

“I was restless at home. I needed to get back into rhythm,” he said. “I like to feel like I’m accomplishing something.”

Plus, he says he got on Ann’s nerves, following her around their house. She has her routine and he monkeyed with it, he said with a smile.

“She’s happy as the devil that I’m working,” he said.

And hanging around the house isn’t Silva’s way. He wants to work, to have a place to go and a job to do. After looking around for what he says felt like forever, an opportunity presented itself, he said.

“I’d applied to different places, different positions and so forth, but the moment they heard I was 86 it was the kiss of death,” he said. “They don’t want any part of it.”

On top of his age, Silva thinks potential employers were scared off by his use of a cane. He can’t stand for eight hours a day like he did for so many years.

Silva found himself applying to, inquiring with, scores of companies for any multitude of jobs. And he was not above a cold call.

As a relatively new client with Anderson, Zeigler, Silva had a fairly routine appointment some months back. After the meeting, he asked if the firm needed any office work done. There was a promise to inquire.

Some time passed. Silva asked again.

“I got a call from Chris (Mazzia) and he said, ‘Are you interested in that position?’ I said, ‘I sure am,’” Silva said.

He started at the beginning of December. Full time, five days a week.

“He’s unbelievably delightful,” said Mazzia, an attorney at the firm.

But Mazzia was abundantly clear — this was not some sort of sympathy hire. These are legal documents and things must be done correctly.

Silva knows what he’s doing and does it well, Mazzia said.

“He’s working on very sophisticated equipment,” he said. “He’s doing a top-quality job.”

And beyond that? His colleagues simply like him.

“He’s very approachable and enthusiastic,” Mazzia said. “He pulsates positivity.”

I wondered if Mazzia worried Silva, who sounds like an ideal employee, might get poached by another firm or another company.

“Oh, no. We have him on a noncompete,” he said. “I’m joking.”

Maybe.

Office manager Marianne Leyva was equally effusive, and protective, of Silva.

“I do recruiting so this solved a hiring issue for me,” she said. “It’s comforting. He’s right on time, very reliable. He’s a happy presence.”

She, like Mazzia, quickly followed with: “No. You can’t have him.”

‘Isn’t this a sweet deal?’

A man of discipline, Silva’s lunch menus follow a pattern. So, too, do his Saturday nights.

On Saturday nights, he and Ann pour themselves a Tito’s vodka on the rocks and have a meal of smoked salmon from Santa Rosa Seafood.

“And we used to dance,” Silva said of their Saturday nights. “Sometimes we still do.”

But on Monday morning, he’s back at the office. And there is no place he’d rather be.

“Isn’t this a sweet deal?” he says, turning from his computer monitor to the views stretching east.

“I’d like to stay here as long as I live,” he said. “I’m going to end my working career here if they’ll keep me.”

You can reach Staff Columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @benefield.

Kerry Benefield

Columnist, The Press Democrat

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