It was also at the time of the Aberdeen occupation that Bill Howell changed his name . For a New York to Dallas transitional event, a senior producer had a brief meeting with the chairman himself in order to check any sensitive details. As the producer gathered his notes and rose, he remembered to ask, "Oh, and how do we address you in the scripted intro?"
"Call me ˜Mr. Howell or ˜W. R.," came the reply.
For years in the field, Howell had contrived to be known as "W. R." It was different in New York, though. There his name was "Bill." Probably a "Mil" or a "Walt" or a "Don" had innocently started this, and Howell had never made an issue of it. But from this point forward he was never again "Bill" to anyone anywhere . Quickly, Lincoln Center watercooler wags picked up on the new name with comments like, "˜W. R.? Hmm. Rhymes with ˜J. R." (Penney humor had an edge in those days because sales had taken a dive and associates worried about layoffs.)
Howell's name change was an interesting aspect of a complicated man. Raised and educated in Oklahoma, Howell always worked to enhance his image. When he became a candidate for the top job, he lost weight, quit smoking cigars, improved his tailoring, and (typical of many senior executives) took poise and elocution instruction. As the CEO, he always chose his publicized appearances with great care, favoring prestige events like serving on a White House blue ribbon panel (see photo section), Waldorf speeches, and Penney's televised golf events. Yet the former head of Penney's meeting services, Jerry Convery, had a surprising story about the CEO's favorite music.
"I had a crew and equipment on one of the company jets to go to Kemmerer for an anniversary event. The planes were always scheduled tight, and, lo and behold, who else is riding with us but the chairman. For some reason W. R. had to get there the night before, too, so away we go to Rock Springs because that's the closest this plane can land to Kemmerer. I had a van waiting there and Howell had a Lincoln, which I picked up and volunteered to drive. He said fine and we headed out, my crew following behind. After about 10 minutes of small talk, the chairman starts fiddling with the radio and, lo and behold, he finds this country-western station and cranks the volume. Well, please understand that I have an unreasonable hatred of country-western in any form. Country-western makes me crazy. It makes me disregard social niceties like being pleasant to the powerful man sitting next to me as we drive across this desolate countryside with country-western hammering my head and blood pressure. I take all I can, which isn't much, and then I shout, ˜I'm sorry, W. R., but if I'm doing the driving, there's no cowboy music allowed. It would not be safe for me to listen to that while I'm at the wheel. Well, he gives me a scary look and then just snaps off the radio. Nothing more. He leans back, shuts his eyes, and dozes. Not another word all the way to Kemmerer, where he then gets into his leadership mode and of course performs very well. But I'll never forget two things. The look he gave me, and the fact that, lo and behold, W. R. Howell liked countrywestern."