As founder of the nation's best-known cash-and-carry business, James Cash Penney had never been amused that his own middle name described that which made his world go around. In fact, on all occasions he was quite serious about money, both in its prudent use and in assessing the value of things in trade.
Grapefruit, for example.
Penney had been booked into the Great Southern Hotel in downtown Columbus, Ohio. He was not comfortable with such upscale accommodations on the road, but company travel people were often arbitrary, feeling that anything less was not in keeping with his elevated stature. So there he was now, in the rather elegant dining room ordering breakfast . "And about the grapefruit?"
"Yes, Mr. Penney?" said the waiter. Of course the dining room captain had quietly informed the waiter about their esteemed guest.
"Would you please serve me the bottom half?"
"Certainly, Mr. Penney." Then, just to be certain, the waiter added, "That was the bottom half, sir?"
Penney nodded, cupping both hands one atop the other as if surrounding a grapefruit. Then he straightened the lower hand into a knife and sliced the grapefruit in half, removing the upper part. "See?"
"Yes, the bottom half, then. Thank you, Mr. Penney." In the kitchen, as the waiter placed hotel silver service on Penney's tray, he shouted at random, "Anybody know why the bottom half of a grapefruit is better?"
"Which is the bottom half?" someone said in passing. "You tell me!"
And as the waiter, happily contemplating his gratuity, finally served the rich old man, he said, "There you go, Mr. Penney. The bottom half."
"Ah, yes. I can tell. Thank you very much." "No problem at all, sir." He could not resist. "Oh, and excuse me, Mr. Penney?"
"Yes, what?" "Well, the bottom half, sir? Exactly why did we order the bottom half?"
"Why?" "I mean, as opposed to the top?" "Oh," said Penney, seemingly relieved that there wasn't some larger issue. "It's the gravity." Again, his hands cupped an imaginary grapefruit. Now, as he grinned and his eyes twinkled, he raised and lowered his top hand as if pressing down on the fruit. Then he indicated the real grapefruit with pleasure . "More juice ."
The old man finished his breakfast and checked his watch. J. C. Penney's district manager would be calling for him in the lobby, so it was time to inform the desk staff where he would be sitting in the lobby ”as if the DM might somehow fail to identify one of the most famous old men in America. Penney was always early for everything but never wasted a minute. As he waited in the lobby, he would memorize notes prepared by the district manager's office about the first store they would visit that day (as it happened , the same store at which this book's eventual heroine, Gale Duff-Bloom, would begin her training three years later). Now, in the dining room, Penney rose, patted the suit pocket with his notes, and then reached into another pocket for something.
Soon it was time for the waiter to collect the anticipated generous tip. All waitstaff eyes were on the aged celebrity as he appeared to take out an old-fashioned twist-lock change purse. And, sure enough, a minute later the waiter looked around with dismay after stopping at the Penney table. Then he held up a dime between his thumb and index finger, swinging it around so that the size of the tip could be seen by all.
The date was November 1965. As he had for decades, Penney was on the road visiting stores. He traveled alone, only receiving assistance as requested from stop to stop. He was 90 years old.