One day in December 1932, Penney left the New York Office building and walked down 34th Street to the magnificent Penn Station, just blocks away. In better days the station had never failed to thrill Penney. When traveling with others, he would take particular pains to celebrate one of New York's architectural wonders, the breathtaking majesty of the steel and glass Penn train shedits steel-ribbed and latticed pillars rising to the steel tracery of arches, vaults, and domes that supported acres of steel -framed glass over the tracks. But today he saw and felt nothing.
Penney entrained for a series of store visits . In an unhappy contrast to times past, nobody in the field was happy to see him. A few store managers even called New York, concerned about Penney's manner and appearance. He dragged through his rounds and, despite the cold weather, there was perspiration on his brow and his hands trembled noticeably. His face also showed the beginning of a rash. Sams heard this and did the only thing he could. Fearing that Penney was on the verge of a nervous collapse, he called ahead of Penney and spoke to Dr. Elmer Eggleston of the famed Kellogg Sanitarium in Battle Creek, Michigan.
About a third of the way through his itinerary , Penney stopped in Battle Creek at the sanitariumas he had for years . The purpose was his annual checkup by the head staff physician and his boyhood friend, Dr. Eggleston. The doctor, once the smartest boy in western Missouri, had affected a jaunty breeziness since college to counterweight his IQ. And at every other checkup he had clapped Penney on the back and said, "Jimmy, you'll outlive us all! On your way, my friend!"
This time was different.
Eggleston set his stethoscope down thoughtfully as he smoothed his mustache . "Hey, Jimmy," he said in a measured voice, "guess what? You got a bad case of shingles, and that ain't all. You're suffering from severe mental depression, my dear friend. So whaddaya say we pop you in bed for a while and get this stuff fixed?"
With the diagnoses, something burst and Penney began sobbing uncontrollably. "I'm sorry, Elmer," he gasped, "I can't help it."
"I know, Jimmy, I know," said the doctor, holding Penney's hand. "And we're gonna get you glued back together, that I promise."
Days later, still unable to sleep well, Penney began shuffling about the sanitarium halls at night. Orderlies watched him carefully as he passed slowly along, mumbling to himself. They listened, occasionally picking out whole sentences. Eventually they knew the complete sad story: "I was in Washington and Oregon. Berta and the boys were going to have Christmas alone. I was too busy for Christmas. They would be alone. When she became ill, it was too late when I got home. Berta never knew I got back." Finally, exhausted, Penney would fall into an overstuffed chair , sometimes quietly sobbing under his breath . Then he would be led back to his room.
The little man was also suffering from a crisis of faith. By accident one night he heard people praying and softly singing hymns he recognized from his youth in Missouri. "God will take care of you," they sang. The sound drew him against his will into the small sanitarium chapel. There he defiantly said, "She never knew I made it back. She died without knowing." He had spoken to the backs of the tiny congregation. A woman turned around and extended her hand toward Penney, saying, "Brother, come join us and know peace."
These people also had problems, and there was compassion in the woman's voice. Penney spoke no more and found himself sitting in the pew beside her. He bowed his head. Moving his lips but uttering no sound, he said a bedtime prayer from his childhood.
In later years during his almost evangelical speeches across the country, he would say that what happened next was a miracle . Because at that moment in the chapel an enormous weight began to lift itself from his frail shoulders. It rose up through the ceiling plaster to the sanitarium roof, where it succeeded timber and tiles and ascended into the cold night and disappeared into the ether .
In that instant James Cash Penney began to recover. He hugged the woman and kissed her cheek, returning to his room with a strange , grateful glow. A week later, having regained much of his strength, he was breakfasting in the dining room on the sanitarium's health food, corn flakes. Dr. Eggleston approached with a medical record folder, which he rapped on Penney's table with a smile. "Hey, Jimmy, guess what? The record don't lie. You are greatly improved. So get yourself dressed and meet me in my office."
Eggleston strode away and Penney looked after him apprehensively.
But he was dressed and in the doctor's office within the hour . "Jimmy!" said Eggleston. "Didn't I tell you what we'd do? You're almost cured!" He laughed and then noticed the tender, tentative look in the little man's eyes. Eggleston touched Penney's shoulder and gently squeezed it. "Why don't you get outta here, Jimmy," he said softly. "Go home. All you gotta do now is rest up a while. Have them call your other stores and say you're postponing your trip. Better yet, I'll call Sams and ask him to do it. So all you gotta do is pack and get to the station."
The doctor put his arm around Penney and gently guided him toward the open door. "Go home now," he said. He gave Penney another squeeze and nudged him ahead. "Go home for Christmas, my friend."
At about the time Penney got on the eastbound train in Battle Creek, a young West Virginian received the first of three breaks that would define his J. C. Penney career. This same young man would eventually rise to a position that allowed him, as a personal project, to introduce full dignity into Mr. Penney's active old age.