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Retail pioneer gone but not forgotten

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This week, I had intended to write about the new year and all its untarnished promise. But instead, I'm going to deliver a eulogy for an old friend.

Montgomery Ward (or Monkey Ward, as we fondly dubbed the old gentleman in the old days) was too young to go, even at age 128. I was shocked and saddened to hear the news of his demise.

Still, the signs of his decline were there had I wanted to see them. He'd started to look a little tired. The Monkey Ward I'd known for 20 years in Fresno, Calif. had gradually lost the luster of the peak years. The parking lot had become pock-marked, and grass grew in its wide cracks. I no longer had to search for a parking place. Inside, the energetic hum of shoppers navigating the crowded aisles in former times had become a slow-motion parody.

I was too loyal to notice. Even though I often left the store empty-handed, I continued to make Wards one of my regular stops when shopping. I think I knew the end was near, but I was in denial.

I've read that the old soldier of the retail wars fought hard toward the end, and even appeared to be making a valiant recovery the past two years. Sadly, I didn't get to see the new prototypes "with an emphasis on smarter, faster shopping in a dynamic store environment" that the company doctors came up with to save the patient. It would only have raised my hopes in vain, I'm afraid. Too little, too late, they said.

Company officials announced last week that the department store will close its 10 distribution centers and 250 stores across the country in the next few months.

You may think such sentiment for a departing department store is a little strange. But there's a reason. My first real paying job was at the Montgomery Ward store in Amarillo, Texas. I had just turned 16 and carried in my wallet a brand new social security card, which meant I could work somewhere other than my father's furniture store that summer. I walked into Wards, asked for a job, and was promptly hired.

My elation quickly turned to deflation when I was sent, with another teenager, to the second floor warehouse. We were instructed to spend the next eight hours, with a half-hour for lunch, "doing inventory." In plain English, that meant counting merchandise sold in the hardware department. Yes, they sold hardware in those days. Like nails and screws.

We set to work with little enthusiasm, but kept at our counting until mid-afternoon. Nobody came to check on us. There were no windows and no air-conditioning, and the summer heat was stifling. My co-worker, a boy I knew from school, spotted a cadre of kids' tricycles. Yep. Before you could say Tom Sawyer, we were on those tricycles, our knees bumping our chins while we careened up and down the aisles, squealing with laughter as we barely missed colliding with a gaggle of floor lamps and a horde of naked manikins.

This became our routine every day. Count, ride, count, ride. It got us through the sweltering, mind-numbing job we'd been assigned, and miraculously, we were never discovered. However, after two weeks, I'd had enough. The 75-cents-an-hour wage they were paying me was too low. But most importantly, I felt guilty. I knew what we were doing was wrong. I quit and walked down the street to the studio of Amarillo's only "dress designer" and landed a job that same day. I spent the rest of the summer ripping seams, cutting patterns, and sweeping the floor. The pay wasn't any better, but the job sounded a lot more glamorous when I told my friends about it.

I've had a lot of jobs since then. But like one's first kiss, that two weeks at Montgomery Ward will always be the most special. I learned some lessons about the real world that I never forgot.

I'll miss the old guy.

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