The Cold Hand

In 1910, Penney moved his family to Salt Lake City. He bought a new two-story, three-bedroom house in an upper-middle-class hillside neighborhood, paying $7,000 cash. Berta had become a full-time homemaker and was highly pleased with the move. Every bit as thrifty as Penney himself, she continued to do all the housekeeping chores, including sewing, mending, canning, and even repairs . Always a bundle of energy like her husband ("I never have time for aches and pains," she would say cheerfully), Berta was also active in church and community affairs and never failed to be available when "her Jim" needed to unburden himself of one or another business matter. The Penneys were immediately and solidly established in the city, and James Cash Penney was an admired and wealthy man at the age of 35.

Is there a difference between working endless hours ”something that literally came with the territory in the Penney world ” and becoming a workaholic? Penney no longer needed to put in as many hours as he had in the past. Earl Sams, in fact, had been urging him to scale back, to work less and reflect more. Now there were plenty of people (like Sams) to do "jobs," whereas Penney's greatest value was in dealing with issues and concepts. The founder agreed to cut down ”after his next road trip scouting sites and visiting stores in the Northwest.

Penney scheduled a three-week trip that had him on the road during the Christmas holidays. Berta said that the boys would be disappointed but that they would manage. Then he sprung a surprise. The whole family was booked to Europe and the Holy Land, with departure in mid-January. It would be the Penneys' first real vacation. Berta was thrilled and began making preparations as her husband hit the road.

Because Berta suffered from asthma, her doctor recommended removal of her tonsils to lessen the risk of discomfort overseas. One day she walked two miles to have day surgery and, to save streetcar fare, again set off for home on foot after the procedure and a short rest. The weather had turned bad, a cold rain falling that turned to snow. Berta was soaked through and suffering chills by the time she arrived home. She caught a bad cold but continued her normal schedule until, a week later, she fainted in the kitchen and their eldest son raced to the pastor's nearby house for help.

Berta was diagnosed with the dread lobar pneumonia, an often fatal illness . Lula Sams began taking care of the Penney children, and Earl Sams looked in on Berta twice a day. The Penney physician brought in a specialist, but Berta's condition worsened, the pneumonia spreading and her fever rising . One evening when Sams arrived, both doctors and the pastor were bent together in a quiet discussion. The family physician turned to Sams and said, "It's not good. She wishes to see you."

Sams sat close by Berta's bed. "Did you contact him?" she asked, her voice little more than a whisper.

"I've sent telegrams everywhere," he said. "I expect something from Western Union at any moment."

"Earl?" She smiled weakly .

"Yes, Berta?"

"Take my hand, please ." He was shocked at how hot it was. Burning. "Earl? Promise me?"

"Yes, Berta."

"Please look after my Jim."

For the rest of his life, Sams never forgot any aspect of this moment ”Berta's feverish hand, her pallor, her last attempt at a smile before her eyes closed. "I will," he managed. "I promise."

Penney arrived home a day later. Berta had slipped into a coma and never knew he had made it back. She died a few hours after his return. They had to pry his hand from hers long after it had turned cold.

Everything Penney had believed in all his life ”God, hard work, "progress" ”seemed to escape him. He felt "mocked by life" [2] and became extremely bitter. "Why?" he kept asking himself. One day after the big funeral, he was sitting like a zombie in the one-room company office when he suddenly screamed "Why?!" and burst into tears. Sams, who had quietly taken over day-to-day operation of the company, and their young accountant , J. I. H. Herbert, helped the founder from the room and drove him home in an automobile.

[2] Mary Elizabeth Curry, Creating an American Institution: The Merchandising Genius of J.C. Penney (New York: Garland Publishing, 1993), p. 125.

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 © 2008-2017.
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