Wyoming Convenience Store Grandma Won't Ever Retire But Says She's OK With That

Rebecca Burnett of Gillette has decided to never retire, so she eagerly pulls night shifts at a Big D Kwik Shop convenience store in Gillette and considers herself everyone’s grandma.

Renée Jean

May 19, 20249 min read

Rebecca Burnett is a cashier at Big D's Convenience Store in Gillette. She told Cowboy State Daily her retirement plan is not to retire. She's going to keep her cowgirl boots on until the day she dies.
Rebecca Burnett is a cashier at Big D's Convenience Store in Gillette. She told Cowboy State Daily her retirement plan is not to retire. She's going to keep her cowgirl boots on until the day she dies. (Renee Jean, Cowboy State Daily)

GILLETTE — She works the night shift at Big D Kwik Shop in Gillette. But she’s not a college kid working a summer job.

Rebecca Burnett is a grandmother with a winning smile and attitude who loves her job so much she’s decided to never retire. She’s going to keep working until she dies, with her cowgirl boots on.

That decision is based on advice from her father, the late Bernard Meckem.

“My dad told me not to retire,” she told Cowboy State Daily. “He tried it, and it made him cranky. He had nothing to do and sat on the couch in his pajamas for days.”

What he did about that was go out and get a part-time job, and that’s what he recommended for his daughter.

“He said to work, whatever job it is that you love, work. Maid, janitor, maintenance — work,” Burnett said. “It gives you a purpose, a reason to get up, take a shower, get dressed. And people to talk to.”

That’s one of the things she likes best about her job at Big D.

Customers are constantly coming into the store.

“They don’t stay very long — a minute and a half, tops,” she said.

But that’s enough to brighten her day and theirs, and she feels that she catches up with just about everything that’s happening in Gillette.

“It’s perfect,” she said. “Because that’s what I like best, people’s stories.”

Her Own Story

Burnett has a story, just like the customers who visit the store, where she’s on the lower rung of management.

She graduated from Campbell County High School in 1979 and still remembers the class motto with pride: “We’re so great, we’re so fine, we’re the class of ’79.”

She always wanted to go to college, but her family didn’t have the money. She married a preacher’s son instead, and they had two children.

“We broke up eight years later,” she said.

That brought her back to Gillette the first time, and it’s where she raised two very independent children.

“Not very many people could afford a babysitter back then,” she said. “And it’s gotten even worse since then.”

To support herself and her children, Burnett worked as much as possible.

When her kids were old enough, she’d give them money to eat out at restaurants together and made sure they knew what to do if there was any problem.

“They learned to be independent,” Burnett said.

So independent, in fact, that when they grew up, they headed out into the world in opposite directions.

Her daughter went to Phoenix, where she still lives and works as an accountant. Her son, something of a hippie, headed for Arkansas.

Rebecca Burnett holds up a photo of herself with her dad in the last year of his life.
Rebecca Burnett holds up a photo of herself with her dad in the last year of his life. (Renee Jean, Cowboy State Daily)

Throwing Out The Pots And Pans

“My daughter is super responsible, and I can be like that,” she said. “But my son is more like my hippie traveler side.”

Burnett is proud of both her kids, who she said are doing well. But their leaving broke her heart for a while, too.

“I’d call my daughter up and cry,” Burnett said, laughing now a bit at the memory. “I’d tell her how I threw away all the pots and pans because there was no one to cook for anymore.”

She’d call her son, too, and say something similar.

Neither child was going to move back home, though, and Burnett realized she needed to put a positive spin on this phase of her life.

Her children had their own lives, and she should celebrate that. They’re out in the world having amazing adventures.

That got her thinking about where she’d like to go, what she’d like to do next.

She liked the idea of Seattle, then again, there’s also Las Vegas.

A story in Cosmopolitan magazine about Vegas eventually settled the matter.

She loaded up her life and landed in an apartment near what she calls the “Space Needle” — the one in Vegas.

A Vegas Spirit Guide

The “Space Needle” is actually the Stratosphere Tower, and it became her Vegas spirit guide.

If weather was clear and she could see the tower, then she’d go out and explore because she could see it and knew she couldn’t get lost.

If weather was bad and she couldn’t see the needle, she stayed closer to home.

It didn’t take Burnett long to decide that Vegas people weren’t nearly as nice as Wyomingites.

“They will steal from you,” she said. “And some of them are just plain mean.”

Like her best friend in Vegas. He was a Serbian man with burns up and down his arms.

“He told me I couldn’t possibly pronounce his name, so he told me to just call him Chuck,” she said.

He could be mean sometimes, too, but he wasn’t to her. He was her friend.

Chuck wasn’t the only interesting person she met.

There was a Japanese card sharp, too, who wore John Lennon glasses and spent his free time translating Chinese to Japanese.

“He spoke perfect English, too,” she said. “Can you imagine how smart that is?”

There were people from all over the world working in Vegas, a source of endless stories and endless fascination for Burnett.

Vegas had an unbelievable nightlife, too.

“There were casinos that had horses and a casino that looked just like New York City,” she said. “There was a tugboat casino and every other kind of casino you can imagine.”

In Vegas, she worked as what’s known as ‘the wheelman.’ That’s the kitchen boss, who makes sure everything in the kitchen is running as it should.

“I was really good at it,” she said. “And I loved it.”

Fading American Dreams

Burnett knows she couldn’t really afford to retire even if she wanted to.

She’s worked a lifetime of paycheck-to-paycheck jobs that barely made ends meet. She’s only saved around $300.

She’s seen the American dream get further and further away, vanishing over a too-distant horizon.

Working at Big D, she sees a lot of people like herself who are barely getting by and knows she’s not alone.

“There’s a homeless kid living beyond the trailer parks over that way,” she said with a gesture. “And there’s some alleyways there where he can sleep at night.”

The young man has a job at a smoke shop, Burnett said, but it’s not enough money to afford rent.

She also knows a mentally ill woman living over by a fast-food restaurant nearby. She’s not mentally ill enough to get any help, Burnett said.

“There’s a couple who are homeless, too, but they have disappeared,” she said. “I don’t know what’s happened to them.”

And she’s seen a man sleeping out on the sidewalk near the store. He’s always gone very early in the morning, but lately he, too, has disappeared.

“I know elderly couples who sleep in their cars in the summer and stay in a hotel room in winter,” she said. “No one can spend the winter in Wyoming in their car. Money is tight, so you have to make choices.”

She rents a bedroom in a house for now. Her salary’s not enough to afford her own apartment, much less buy a house.

“I’ve seen advertising on television for medications that cost $1,000 a month,” she said, shaking her head. “I don’t know how anyone affords that. Insurance isn’t accessible to a lot of people.”

The Pearl

But Burnett is not complaining. She’s just glad she came back to Gillette when she did. She thinks this is where she’ll stay to the end of her days, just like her dad.

Her path back to Gillette was indirect. She’d met someone in Vegas, and that’s what eventually brought her back to Gillette by way of Utah.

“When the boom went bust, we had no jobs,” she said. “We lived with his parents for a while. Eventually, he got a job cleaning apartments with his brother. That’s how bad things were.”

Oil and gas activity started to pick back up in Gillette, though, and they saw an opportunity to better their lives.

“People with CDLs were making $6K a month, and he had a CDL,” she said. “He wanted a job where he could get paid well.”

The two broke up not long after arriving in Gillette, but there’s a silver lining to that too, Burnett said. It’s what made it possible for her to spend time with her dad during the last year of his life.

“I would follow him around the house, talking and chattering away,” she said. “Then one day I was noticing how he was putting on his glasses, putting on his dentures, and so on and so forth.”

She asked him if he’d ever noticed how the older they both got, so many things went onto their heads.

That brought a smile and laughter. And that’s when he told her never to retire.

“Just find something you like to do,” he told me. “And it will supplement your Social Security and keep you getting out of bed in the morning.”

As she bustles about the Big D convenience store, straightening shelves, sweeping the floors and dusting equipment, she will smile and nod her head at the memory of that.

She sees her dad’s advice as a precious pearl of wisdom. It’s something that took a lifetime to make by a man who lived a long and good life.

“He was a very wise man,” she said, smiling.

Her eyes are bright and clear, and no tear is shed.

Renée Jean can be reached at renee@cowboystatedaily.com.

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Renée Jean

Business and Tourism Reporter