Good-bye, My Friend


Good-bye , My Friend

"One of the toughest duties I ever had was Don's funeral," said Walt Neppl, who was the same age, 78, when his friend passed away. "We were so close. Each of us had strengths the other didn't, and together we were a great team. At my age, we're supposed to accept these things. But I don't know. It was hard to say good-bye to Don."

Don Seibert's funeral was held on the last day of August 2000. With his family and friends , Seibert's second family of Penney people moved slowly into the church . As both close friend and Penney person, Walt Neppl was the surviving leader of that special senior congregation. They were people who had been part of one another's lives as their respective careers had crisscrossed the country over the years . Theirs was a bond beyond the norm in the corporate world, all sharing fond memories and belief in the founder's watchwords of honor , confidence, service, and cooperation. All of the men wore the HCSC lapel pin that day.

They had attended the kids ' weddings, the conferences, the reunions. And the funerals. This year had already claimed legendary Penney leader Mil Batten. [1] Now another was gone, and during a time of bewilderment and despair about their company.

Neppl had been well known within JCPenney as someone totally without cant. What you saw was what you got, and today you saw real grief . He did his best with nodding acknowledgments and muted greetings , but he was relieved to finally be able to sit with his wife, Marian, and shut his eyes.

When he opened them, he saw a younger Penney person who was not part of this sad ritual of reunion. Jim Oesterreicher had arrived with his wife, Pat. They sat at the side, apart from Neppl and the other old warhorseswho looked in Oesterreicher's direction with no love in their eyes. They had all lost paper fortunes [2] and, almost worse , had seen the diminution of their company's great stature. The once-grand chain bore little resemblance to the organization that had shaped the lives of so many in today's gathering. It had passed from being their company to something pretentious and then vastly troubled.

Yet one had to respect the quiet decency of Oesterreicher on this day. He had made the effort to attend the service despite the painful disarray of his last days in office.

Other great changes had occurred since Seibert's last days in charge.

Neppl recalled the idea that Seibert and he had worked on prior to retirement: the way to develop a smaller, younger company's energy and speed of responsethe way to drive individual responsibility into the gut of the organization. What the idea neededbut never gotwas a commitment from Seibert's handpicked successor, dynamic Bill Howell. Instead, Howell of course went his own way to "America's department store," to Dallas, and to the three most profitable years in company history. Then he retired just before the problems surfaced.

Neppl was aware of something else about Howell that Seibert had mentioned to only a very few during his final illness . After taking over, Howell became the first Penney leader who never sought counsel or comment from his predecessor. In fact, he avoided all but the obligatory contacts like board meetings. Unlike any other Penney chief in the company's history, Howell kept his own counsel. Seibert had finally recognized his complete misjudgment of the man. So to Neppl and the other few in the congregation who knew this, it was appropriate that Howell was the one person conspicuous in his absence today.

Those who did pack the church were soon moved by words and music that spoke to them of life, mortality, and remembrance . After the final notes from the brass choir faded, there was a reception set amid photographs and mementos of the former chairman.

Penney people gathered in small clusters, sharing news of events since their last meeting. And then without exception they quietly began asking each other about the J. C. Penney Company. Walt Neppl told friends that he felt doubly betrayedby Seibert's death and by the performance of their once-cherished company.

"Who would ever have thought," he wondered out loud, then taking a breath , "that this could happen to J. C. Penney?"

[1] Longevity seemed to often go with the top jobs at Penney. The founder, of course, was 95 when he died; Batten was 89; and Ray Jordan (who died in 2003) was 98.

[2] JCPenney stock had dropped from $78 to $8!




Celebration of Fools. An Inside Look at the Rise and Fall of JCPenney
Celebration of Fools: An Inside Look at the Rise and Fall of JCPenney
ISBN: 0814471595
EAN: 2147483647
Year: 2003
Pages: 177
Authors: Bill Hare

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