Lifestyle

One woman's lifetime of work: Emma Kukors finds joy and friendship at her job at Sawbones

Emma Kukors, right, serves up a piece of her famous lemon-poppyseed cake to fellow Sawbones employee Berdie Krimmel at the company picnic last month. - Amelia Heagerty/staff photo
Emma Kukors, right, serves up a piece of her famous lemon-poppyseed cake to fellow Sawbones employee Berdie Krimmel at the company picnic last month.
— image credit: Amelia Heagerty/staff photo

Emma Kukors, 86, makes knees. For 23 years, the Latvian immigrant has come to Sawbones five days a weeks to fit together femurs and tibias, with ligaments made of nylon, tubes or cords. On a good day, Kukors assembles 100 knee models in eight hours, but always at least 80.

The great-grandmother is in the minority — only 6.8 percent of Americans 75 and up still work, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Even today, as more baby boomers have held off their retirement past age 65, only 16 percent of seniors are employed.

“I’d rather be at work than here — I guess I’m born to work.” she said from home one balmy August afternoon. “I’m proud if I’m 86 and I can still do things. A lot of people wonder why I don’t retire. No way, I don’t want to retire!”

Kukors is Sawbones’ oldest employee by more than 10 years, but she holds a special position at the company for much more than her age.

“We’re pleased as punch to have her,” said Tom Beall, Sawbones’ human resources manager. “You can certainly depend on her to get the job done, and she gets along well with everybody.”

Kukors works full-time, taking the bus a few miles to and from work five days a week.

Beall said Kukors is a special part of Sawbones’ “great big large family” — she’s a cheerful worker who “always does more than her fair share.”

Sawbones is an Island business, sometimes called the Bone Factory, that creates hands-on workshop models of all parts of the anatomy. More than 2,000 models are created at its Vashon plant.

Kukors’ journey to Vashon was a long one, but she remembers its dates and details well.

Before World War II, she and her husband Matvejs were farmers in Latvia.

“Oh, it was great,” she said. “We have a small country. We had a small farm, my parents had a small farm. I was happy to be a farmer.”

But in 1939 the small country — bordered by Estonia on the north, Russia on the east, Belarus on the southeast, Lithuania on the south and the Baltic Sea on the west — became the focus of an intense tug-of-war between Germany and the Soviet Union.

First, the Soviet Union forced Latvia to have Soviet military bases within its borders. Then, the Germans invaded, and Latvia was ruled by the Germans from 1941 to 1944.

Kukors and her husband weren’t forced to leave the country until Aug. 16, 1944, when they were awoken by a knock on the door.

“The policeman came at 6 a.m. and said, ‘Everyone has to be out by 8 a.m. If you want to stay, go in the woods. If you want to leave, keep on running,’” she said.

The Russians were invading from the east, and Kukors and her husband opted to flee with thousands of other Latvians to Germany. Kukors was pregnant with her first child.

She and Matvejs ended up in a camp in Ludvigsberg, Germany. Matvejs was sent to other parts of Germany for long stretches of time, she remembers, “to clean up cities that were bombed.”

When Elza was born on Feb. 15, the Germans intended to take her away from Kukors, she said.

“I said, ‘No, you can shoot me right here,’” she recalled. “That was the only thing I had to live for.”

She kept her baby, which was “the best thing” for her but also very hard — “we were in barracks 24 hours a day,” she said.

Six years after fleeing Latvia, the Kukors family found sponsors to bring them to the United States: A Boston family, belonging to a Lutheran Church, brought the trio across the Atlantic Ocean on Nov. 1, 1950.

The Kukors lived in a small house on the family’s property and worked for them for a year, Kukors said. There, she began to face the reality of her new culture, where everything from farming practices to the roles of men and women were different.

“In our country, women milk the cows. Here men do it,” she said. “My husband didn’t know how. I went out sometimes, to help him, and Mrs. Roype (who owned the farm with her husband) said ‘Emma, You’re supposed to be helping me.’”

She and Matvejs — shortened to “Matt” once he got to the United States — saved up money to fly to Seattle.

The couple decided to move to Vashon because they had friends from Latvia who lived on the Island, she said. The family arrived Nov. 18, 1951. With only $100 in their pocket, Kukors said, they had to get jobs “right away.”

First Matt, then she, became workers at Beall Greenhouses on Beall Road, then-leaders in the floral industry. Kukors “graded” roses, examining them for defects — blooms that were “too open” or had bugs on them, she recalled.

The family, it seemed, embraced work.

On some holidays, such as Mother’s Day, she’d start work at midnight, she said. She raised her children, Elza and Peter, while a rose grader; Peter worked at the greenhouses from age 13 through college.

When Beall Greenhouses closed — the victim, Kukors said, of the “many cheap roses” California could grow — Kukors, who by then had worked there 34 years, found herself without a job. She was 62.

She was afraid it would be difficult to find work. “A lot of people didn’t take you anymore when you were that old,” she said.

But Sawbones hired her, and Kukors found her niche in knees. She’s been assembling the resin mold-cast femurs and tibias since day one, and doesn’t want to switch to another task, she said — or retire.

“I’d love to see her retire, I would,” said her son Peter, who now lives in Federal Way. “But I think she’d go stir-crazy.”

Kukors’ husband Matt died in 1996, two days after the couple’s 54th wedding anniversary.

When Kukors sold her five-bedroom north-end home a few years ago, her children tried to convince her to move off the Island. Instead, she bought a much smaller and newer home just south of town.

“I’ll die on Vashon,” she told Peter.

Sawbones is a community of good friends and meaningful work for his mother, he said.

“She will go until she cannot do it any longer,” Peter said. “If, at 86, I’m doing half as good as her, I couldn’t complain.”

Kukors and Peter shared similar sentiments about Peter’s three daughters, who all competed in the Olympic trials this summer.

Ariana Kukors, 19, fell .08 seconds short of representing the United States in the 200-meter individual medley in Beijing. The University of Washington sophomore swam a personal best, but came in third behind a five-time Olympic medalist and onetime Olympian.

Emily and Mattie Kukors did not qualify for this summer’s games, either.

“I’m just very proud of these girls,” Kukors said, and added she hoped her granddaughters would qualify for the 2012 London Olympics.

Kukors’ fellow employees know all about her family — though none of them live on the Island any more, “Emma’s very close to her family,” said Jen Lee.

Lee met Kukors 11 years ago when she began work at Sawbones as an assembler. The pair have become friends in the past decade, she said, and often share breaks and lunch.

“The first impression that I got was energy,” Lee said. “She’s always going, always, and she has a great work ethic.”

Lee said Kukors’ fellow employees “adore” her.

“She’s just a good human being,” Lee said.

Kukors loves to bake, and it seems she never bakes just one cake. She has baked and decorated many wedding cakes over the years, including a six-layer cake for her grandson Mark.

Kukors bakes two different cakes, and several of each, once a month and brings them to Sawbones for the employees who had birthdays that month.

“Emma’s poppyseed cake — everybody knows about it on the Island,” Lee said.

In turn, Sawbones throws a birthday bash for Kukors each year. “She’s that special,” Lee said.

She said she’s glad Kukors has found her place at Sawbones, which “she always says is her second home.”

“In one way, I think that’s wonderful, and in one way I think she’s crazy,” Lee said of Kukors’ dedication to her job. “You never know with that woman. She always has a positive attitude and work is a great part of her life.”

The model knee-maker is, as Tom Beall said, “a good model for all of us.”

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