Of course, Penney's store appearances , speeches, and press interviews were nothing more than well-meaning deceptions. As "the founder" and "honorary chairman" he was a respected and almost lovable symbol. As discussed, he had little to do with running the company any more. Even the suits on his back were a deception.
Penney's face was nearly as well known in America as Eisenhower's. In the last 25 years of his life he seemed ageless. Wispy hair, twinkling eyes, sagging jowls, full white mustache , and happy smile. The great-grandfather of ethical business success. It was important, therefore, that he look his best in public. This presented a problem for two reasons.
Penney was a hard fit, having become a pear-shaped elf in his old age. And for decades he had amiably bragged that he never wore anything that wasn't a well-made value right off the rack at Penney'snot the place for a man who needs a special fit. Yet in the photo section of this book, the reader will see a shot of the old man showing off the "Towncraft" label of his Penney suit. It's a candid photo, but the fit looks good.
It's a fake. For years the men's suit buyers had taken advantage of Penney's age (and diminished suspicions) to keep him looking right. They got his measurements on some pretext and then had a vendor build several suits as well made as those from Brooks Brothers. Penney would be taken later to a warehouse and shown various suits to pick out, all represented as heading directly for a Penney store rack until diverted, all with the Penney "Towncraft" label sewn in. Of course, they fit perfectly , and, as the photo clearly indicates, he never suspected.
James Cash Penney's favorite last promotional routine was also one of sweet deception. After his 90th birthday, his age always came up during interviews. His response was consistently something like, "Yes, I'm now 94 years old and I'm still so invigorated visiting our stores that I plan to live to be 100." Newspapers, magazines, and television sound bites spread the welcome words. Yet on February 12, 1971, while trying to recover from a fall, complications set in, and he left this mortal coil after only 95 years.
An enormous outpouring of sadness met the founder's passing. "Considering our insular little world of retail," Batten recalled, "the response was surprising. It was something like a national day of mourning." Penney's obituary ("Last of the Merchant Princes") was on the front page of every New York daily. His packed memorial service at Manhattan's St. James' Church was attended by government figures, business leaders , and other VIPs and was widely covered by all media.
There were thousands of messages of condolences. These included telegrams from the president and miscellaneous VIPs as well as notes from people of all walks of life throughout the nation. Every message that arrived at the Penney tower in Rockefeller Center was answered . This was accomplished by a team of secretaries under the supervision of Virginia Mowry, the founder's longtime executive secretary, who was becoming the first Penney archivist.
It was noted that many of the letters were from elderly men and women residing in small towns. In simple language they expressed gratitude for Penney's having enhanced their lives with quality goods that were sold with unfailing courtesy and honorable service at value prices. A few secretaries read feeble handwriting that told of a time when the stores had a different name . One read, "I am old! When I was a boy it was called ˜The Golden Rule. I think Penney was the junior partner of four older men. The chain was only five stores then. Imagine! Good-bye, Mr. Penney, and God Bless you."
Good-bye, indeed. How far the little giant had come in his long lifetime. How much his boundless energy and quick wits had accomplished with little more than ambition and integrity with which to start. How far and how much, an amazing journey from a cesspool of a Wyoming mining town to Rockefeller Center. And, as he would tearfully admit after he lost her, all because of an incredibly wonderful woman . Amazing.