Earl Sams was 60 and had another 10 years to go. His life and remarkable reign at the top of J. C. Penney would end on a Sunday after a round of golf at his New Rochelle club. He would sit down heavily in the clubhouse, good naturedly complain of fatigue, smile at his friends , and slump in his chair . The next day in New York and across the whole chain, a cloud of true sadness enveloped the organization. The warm, approachable, and astute executive was immediately missed by all who had ever dealt with him, including his peers at Montgomery Ward and Sears Roebuck.
The company's public relations officer led a hastily called press conference on Monday morning. After announcing Sams's death, he introduced the chairman. James Cash Penney, five years Sams's senior, spoke briefly and without notes. Normally, there was no clearer and more appropriate extemporaneous speaker than Penney, but his grief would cause him to make a mistake that would unsettle him for a long time to come:
The steady hand of Mr. Sams had guided our business since 1917. As a testament to his ability, consider the vast reach and rock-solid financial strength of today's Penney Company. While Mr. Sams never sought credit for his many accomplishmentsI now wish that it had been more generally understood how deeply grateful I have been for the assistance this fine man afforded me. I deeply and profoundly mourn his passing.
But nearly a decade had passed since Sams had engineered James Cash Penney's rehabilitation . Memories had dimmed or people had come along who had never known of Penney's difficulties. Therefore, to most of the media it sounded as if the chairman desired a wider appreciation not for Sams's help in Penney's emotional and financial recovery but for "the assistance this fine man afforded me" (presumably) in running the huge company! It sounded, in other words, as if the 75-year-old coot were using the somber occasion for self-aggrandizement.
This was instantly perceived by the PR pros. Because of some adroit defusing after the chairman left the room, little harm would come of it. Except to Penney himself, who eventually heard about his irrevocable faux pas and was distressed for years.