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For three decades, Barbara Bradley Baekgaard followed the same routine, five days a week.
The 82-year-old cofounder of the handbag brand Vera Bradley woke up at 7 a.m., washed her hair, ate a bowl of cereal, and drove to the company’s Fort Wayne, Indiana headquarters. By 6 p.m., she usually left the office to grab dinner with a colleague.
That all came to a grinding halt last March when Indiana’s governor issued a lockdown order, due to the coronavirus. Baekgaard hasn’t been back to the office since.
“I was always there, and I loved it,” Baekgaard told Insider from her home in Fort Wayne, where she has stayed during the pandemic. “The energy was incredible to me. It was my life.”
She thrives off being busy. The octogenarian only relinquished her Chief Creative Officer title three years ago, and still serves on the board. She is worth $210 million with her 7% stake in Vera Bradley, according to Forbes, which she cofounded in 1982.
Below she shares the new routine she’s adjusted to in her (nearly) retired pandemic life.
After running one of the world’s biggest bag brands, she is struggling with pandemic boredom
Quarantine has been a rough adjustment from a lifetime of keeping busy.
Even before she started Vera Bradley, Baekgaard had side hustles from hanging wallpaper and selling clothing at trunk shows while raising four kids. She loves to host friends and family — she’s also a grandmother of 12 — even monogramming sheets and towels for frequent guests. But now the 6,000-square-foot house is empty aside from Baekgaard and her boyfriend, Bob Watson.
Now she doesn’t get out of bed until 9 a.m., the time she used to arrive at the office. “It makes the day shorter,” she said. “You know, I don’t want to get up at seven o’clock in the morning because there’s nothing going on at that hour in my life.”
After breakfast and putting on lipstick and a touch of eyeshadow, she watches “The Dr. Oz Show” at 11 a.m. She checks in with Debbie Wilson, her assistant of 30 years. They used to sit just a few feet apart in the office. Now they talk on the phone. Baekgaard gets calls from her colleagues to put her stamp of approval on anything from store decoration to product design.
“I call myself the ‘tweaker’ at Vera Bradley because we have so many great people doing everything that all I really do is kind of put my final touch on things,” she said.
Her current big project is the Bradley, a boutique hotel in Fort Wayne that has been in the works for three years and is due to open in April. Baekgaard has been obsessing over the decor and loved going to the construction site before the lockdown.
“If I had ever been really good at math, I would have been an architect because I love building and construction,” she said.
Just like the real Vera Bradley, she finds comfort in beauty and decor
6 p.m. is cocktail hour for Baekgaard and her boyfriend. Her go-to drink is a vodka tonic with Absolut, Schweppes, and lime. They watch Lester Holt on the nightly news before dinner; her daughter drops off a meal or Baekgaard cooks something simple like a pot roast.
Regardless of what’s on the menu, they always dine by candlelight with Vera Bradley dinnerware. Paper napkins are expressly forbidden.
“I’m not a foodie at all,” Baekgaard said. “It’s all about the ambiance. Even if you ask me about a restaurant, I could tell you more about the decor than the menu.”
It all harkens back to her mother, the original Vera Bradley. “I remember after my dad died, and I would call my mother at dinnertime because it was a lonely time for her,” Baekgaard remembers. “She wouldn’t describe what she ate, but she would tell me what the table looks like: ‘Oh, I have the red place mat with the little navy blue bordered dishes.'”
Decor has helped create a sense of normalcy for Baekgaard the past nine months. She still keeps fresh flowers throughout the house with white day lilies being her favorite. Before the pandemic, she would even get a long-lasting arrangement like pussy willows if she planned to travel.
For the first time in her life, she can picture retiring
She recently got her second vaccine dose and is eager to fly with Watson to New York, the city where they met in the fall of 2019. They didn’t live together until his Indiana visit in March turned into an open-ended stay due to the lockdown. Aside from quick trips to Montana and Nantucket — they fly private — they have been cooped up.
“It’s a COVID romance,” joked Baekgaard.
She has an apartment by Columbus Circle and used to visit at least once a month, going to the Vera Bradley Manhattan office and seeing Broadway shows.
“I don’t have any desire to go to an island or anything like that,” she said. “I just want to go to New York and keep doing what I’m doing.”
She plans to come back to the office once it’s safe. Her mother worked until she was 82 and her father was also in good health well into his 80s. But retirement is no longer unthinkable as it was before the pandemic.
“It’s like being in a maze,” Baekgaard said. “When you have a chance to get out and look at the maze from above, sometimes you see some paths you didn’t know were there. I can’t see a day when I say, ‘Okay, I’m not going to do this anymore… But I think it will be easier if I ever fully retire because I’ll know I can live without being there every single day.”