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Interview with: Ed Smith
Interviewed by: David Goldstein
Date: June 15, 2009
DG: Today is June 15, 2009. We are interviewing Ed Smith for the Houston Public Library Oral History Project. My name is David Goldstein. How are you today, Mr. Smith?
ES: I am great, thank you.
DG: Let’s begin as we always do – at the beginning. Tell us where you were born and about your early years.
ES: Well, I was born in Michigan in a little bitty town about halfway between Detroit and Chicago. And so, that is where I grew up and went to elementary/grammar and high school, graduated, went off to college, hated it and on a whim, I stopped by a recruiter and went in the Air Force. This was, of course, during the Vietnam War which probably on my part was not the smartest thing in the world to do but do you know what? It was probably one of the best things for me actually because it gave me an opportunity to grow up and I certainly got in some incredible travel, so it was good. And then, when I got out of the military, I was ready to go back to college then. You know, they say boys grow up later than girls. I really was ready to go to school then. But I did not want to go to school in Michigan and so my sister and brother-in-law lived in California and she said, “Come on out to California,” so I did and I went to school in California. I started out at Loyola University which, back in the early 1960s, it was an all boys' school. I stayed there for 1 year and then I decided I needed to move on so I went to Cal-State and actually, the dean of the School of Behavioral Science was moving from Loyola to Cal-State Domingues Hills. It was a brand new campus they were starting. He said, “Come on over,” and so I did. It was the best thing in the world I could have done. So I stayed there and actually went through undergrad and I was in grad school, and I was kind of floundering around. At the time, I was dating a woman who lived in Houston who, in those days, they called them stewardesses but basically it was a flight attendant for Continental Airlines so I was going back and forth between Houston and Los Angeles and I decided, do you know what? Houston would not be a bad place. So on one of my trips down here, I dropped my resume off at Foley’s and lo and behold, they hired me. This was in February 1972. My first job was manager of credit promotion, so my job was to promote the opening of credit cards because, at that point, it was becoming a well-known fact that people that used a credit car were loyal customers and they actually spent more. So I do not even know if I could venture to say how many credit cards I opened but there were a lot. And then, through the years, I progressed and eventually rose to the rank of Vice-President of Public Relations, Special Events, Community Affairs and Visitor Services. I had all of the Foley’s stores in Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado, New Mexico, and Louisiana.
DG: That was the quick version. Let’s go back and pick up a few pieces. When you were a kid in school, what kind of things did you like to do?
ES: You know, we grew up on a farm. My family, we never thought of ourselves as being poor but we did not have a whole lot of money but we lived on a farm so we always had plenty to eat. There was a huge garden and we had animals. I had a horse and I loved riding that horse.
DG: A lot of people might be surprised to think of you as a farm boy. What kind of stuff did you excel at in school?
ES: You know, I’ll tell you, in high school, I was just a moderate student. I was kind of middle of the class. It wasn’t until after I had gone in the military and had a chance to grow up and then went away to college that I really started making the dean’s list and started really enjoying what I was doing at school. I was majoring in behavioral science and my original goal was to go on and get my master’s and eventually my Ph.D. and become a behavioral scientist and go to work for a major corporation. Behavioral scientists usually work in HR. They go in and tell the company, “This is the way that you need to treat your employees and you need to do a better job of this and that and the other thing.” So, in a way, I used all of those skills but I just never really went in to the HR area. Instead, I went into public relations, special events, community affairs, advertising sales promotion, that sort of thing.
DG: By the time you had made a decision to go to college, was the farm not an option for you?
ES: It was never an option. It was never an option for me. I had no interest in that so, no, I wanted to get away and I wanted to do something on my own.
DG: It was such a high profile job that you eventually had at Foley’s. Were you always a people person when you were young? Were you the kind of person that had a lot of friends?
ES: Yes. Well, I prefer to say I have a few friends and a lot of acquaintances, you know? Friends are something that you . . . I can probably count the number of friends I have on one hand, maybe two, because friends are a lot of work. It goes both ways. Acquaintances, I think I have a lot of acquaintances and I value those acquaintances, but I cherish those friends and friendships.
DG: So that decision to enter the Air Force, was it military, was it Air Force? Why the Air Force? Why at that time?
ES: Well, I have an older brother. Actually, I am the youngest of 7 children and one of my older brothers, at that time, I think he was a colonel in the Air Force and he kind of influenced the decision because I had gone back to school the second half of the semester and 3 days later, I just came home. I was like, oh my God! My parents were concerned, “What are you going to do?” I did not know what I was going to do, so I talked to my brother and he said, “You know, why don’t you go in the military? It will give you a chance to grow up.” So, you know, that is what I did. And actually, it was my first taste of Texas because anybody that goes in the Air Force, your first stop is in San Antonio at Lackland Air Force base. And I really did, I liked it, and I thought, you know, this would not be a bad place. But then, once I eventually got out of the military, moved to California and went to school there.
DG: Did you think about flying? Did you think about being a pilot or were you just going to go in for a ____ tour?
ES: Never. No interest in that.
DG: So your first impressions of Texas came through the military?
DG: Which is not really fair. It is probably more of the military experience than the Texas experience, but do you have any other impressions of Texas back then?
ES: Well, I remember coming down here to visit on occasion, I was just very impressed with what was going on and I will be honest – when I first took the job with Foley’s, I thought I would come down for maybe 1 year, 1-1/2 years, maybe 2 years, but I would probably end up going back to California because I really liked southern California, but the longer I spent down here, the more I realized that that was not an option to go back to southern California. First of all, you know, the freeways in southern California can turn into a giant parking lot in a moment’s notice and I know some would say the same is true here in Houston but, for the most part of my living experience in Houston, I have lived inside the Loop and I do not concern myself with the traffic as far as getting back and forth to work because I did not even get on the freeways so yes, there is traffic. For people that live outside the Loop in the Woodlands and Sugar Land and what have you, yes, it is a bit of a challenge to commute but for me, it wasn’t. And, you know, the longer I was here, Houston is one of those cities that just grows on you and it is very open, it is very welcoming and I fell in love with the city. I cannot envision living anywhere else.
DG: Before we get to the Foley’s story, you mentioned the Air Force – were there any other experiences or people that were formative for you, that really had an influence in your opinion on who you became or what you did?
ES: Well, I think several things. There were a couple of professors in college, one in undergraduate school and one in graduate school. You know, it is funny – I took a class as an elective, an anthropology class, and the professor, her name was Dr. Polly Pope and, you know, it was amazing . . . I took it because I thought, well, this will be an easy few credits that I can pick up. The woman was such an incredible teacher. She made everything that she was teaching you sound so fascinating, so interesting, that every semester, I took another class. In fact, by the time I graduated from undergraduate, I had enough credits in anthropology that I could have a dual degree. Now, what was I ever going to do with a degree in anthropology? Nothing, because that was not where my interest was, but I found it fascinating. And then, the other person was the professor that headed up the School of Behavioral Science. He was the dean. I do not know if they still do this or not but in those days, if you got a faculty recommendation, you automatically got into graduate school. So he was my ticket because he wrote a faculty recommendation and I got into graduate school and so it was great. But those two people were probably very influential in my life. I think my dad was very influential as well. You know, I recently retired and I found myself in a really good situation. My dad was a product of the Great Depression. I am not sure why they called it the Great Depression because I do not know what was so great about it. I think they are mostly talking about how big the Depression was. But my dad was one of those people that taught all of us kids that, do you know what? If you couldn’t pay cash, with the exception of a house and okay, maybe a car . . . if you could not pay cash, you probably really did not need it. So when I reached the point when I am thinking about retirement, I was in a good position in my life because of some of the principles that my dad taught all of us kids.
DG: So you grew up with the belief of paying cash and your first job at Foley’s was convincing people to use credit?
ES: Yes, go figure! Well, no, I have nothing against credit. Actually, I have credit cards as well but I pay them in full every month. See that is the secret.
DG: So take us now to that time you came to Houston and you decided to put your resume in at Foley’s. What were your impressions of Houston at that time? When was that? What was Houston like?
ES: That was 1971, and I actually started the job in February 1972. You know, Houston was incredible. First of all, I was not making very much money and I still remember my first day at work. You know, I’ve got a brand new suit on. You have to understand, when I was in college, that was in the 1960s and it was southern California and it was pretty radical. I was out there marching with the best of them. The college where I eventually moved, to Cal State Dominguez Hills was in Compton, California and it is fairly close to Watts, so there was a lot of Civil Rights Movement going on and, you know, I had an Afro about the size of a beach all and I was out there marching with everybody else. Even though I was a part of the Vietnam War, I was opposed to it but I was smart enough to keep my mouth shut because, if you are in the military, you do not speak out against the military or you are not encouraged to have your own thoughts about what is going on in the world. So I kept my mouth shut and, of course, got an honorable discharge and because of that, I had the GI Bill which enabled me to get through college. But there was a lot of protesting against the Vietnam War and I was out there, too. O.K., I will just go on record: I never burned a flag and I never got arrested although I probably should have a number of times. So, yes, when I came down here, it was a whole different environment and like I said, my first day of work, I have a brand new suit, I have a briefcase. I was not making much money so I parked like 8 blocks away from the store and I am walking, and there was a street that I was walking down right next to the Sakowitz store -- it had a whole bunch of trees and the birds were singing like mad. Well, come to find out I think they were grackles or I do not know what. And I thought isn’t this great, you know? This is a sign. And all of a sudden, I felt something and I reached up and I was like, oh no, is this an omen? This is my first day. So I got inside the store and the first thing I had to do was go stick my hand in the sink. But anyway, that was just one of those days. Houston was just so different form southern California but, like I said, everybody that I encountered . . . well, not everybody, but the majority of the people that I encountered were so welcoming and were so embracing and it just made you feel good.
DG: Why Foley’s? Did you put in a bunch of resumes and Foley’s responded?
ES: I did. You know, the interesting thing – you do what you have to do to get through college. I worked at Safeway, I was a night-time stocking shelves, and actually, a friend of mine told me about a job that would really work out great if you are in college and it was with Sears & Roebuck. And I was a door to door bill collector for them. That was an eye-opening experience. They said, “Well, you are majoring in all this psychology and all this stuff so they assign me to Watts and so I was down there trying to collect money and yes, there were some experiences that were a little bit crazy. But, you know, you do what you have to, to get through school.
DG: You said Houston was different from southern California. That is going to be obvious to people who spent time in both places but for people who have never left Houston, tell us how it was different. How was Houston different ____ initial approaches.
ES: Well, California, in particular especially in the 1960s – it was free love, it was free spirit, it was smoking marijuana. There was a lot of stuff going on in California that may or may not have been going on in Houston, Texas, but if it was, it wasn’t nearly as open as it was in California. And, you know, people going up to Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco and the communes and I remember there was a group of us that wanted to go to Woodstock and hey, you know, we are college kids. It would have been fun but the old, broken down VW bus that we had never got outside southern California, so we never made it to Woodstock. It was just a different culture that was going on in the 1960s in California than what I saw when I got to Houston in the early 1970s.
DG: I am intrigued with this moment of transition. You are a child of the 1960s protesting in the streets in southern California and then you go into the Air Force and then you end up a suit working at Foley’s. Was it a conscious decision on your own that it was time to sort of grow up and become a citizen?
ES: Yes, I think it was and chronologically, that is not quite the order because it was the Vietnam, military, and then going to southern California and college and the protesting. And I think some of that, I had to get some of that out of my system but I also think that, you know, if you feel strongly about some things, you never get it out of your system and so, to this day, I feel strongly about some of the wars that we have been in and I feel strongly about civil rights, equal rights. So I do not think it is anything that . . . some people can say that was a phase they went through. Yes, to a certain extent but I do not think totally. I think it is something that stays with you throughout your life.
DG: So you’ve got this job now at Foley’s, your entry level position, you are in Texas, you are in Houston – where was your first apartment? Where was your first living space?
ES: Actually it was a little house . . . I eventually got married. I married the woman that I was going back and forth from California and we lived in a little house over on West Lane right off Midlane, a little rent house which was an interesting little house because it looked great and when we looked at it and it was for rent and it was going to be wonderful, but two things that I discovered early on. First of all, it backed up to the railroad tracks and the first night at, I do not know what time of the night it was, but a train came roaring through and I thought, oh my gosh, what have I done? I will never get used to this. It is amazing what you get used to. Within 2 weeks, I was oblivious to the train. The other thing that I was not used to was the fact that Houston is on kind of a bed of gumbo, like clay, and when it rains, it can do funny things. The ground shifts and what have you. We had some friends in visiting one time and they were in the second bedroom and it rained in the night and their bedroom door, they could not get it open because the whole house had shifted so much so we had to pry a window open and they had to get out through the window. We finally got the bolts off the door and got it taken off. Yes, so, welcome to Houston!
DG: Welcome to Houston! Let’s create some context. Houston in, this is 1971 did you say?
ES: 1972. Early 1972.
DG: Houston in 1972, before we move on to Foley’s, what was Houston in 1972? The size of the city? What was going on in the city?
ES: You know, if I had to say what the population was, at that time, I do not believe Houston was the fourth largest which is what we are now but I do not know where it ranked. It has experienced incredible growth and it has experienced incredible growth leading up to that. Intercontinental Airport had just opened I think in 1968 so it had not been open long.
DG: What was downtown like? Did you work at the downtown store?
ES: I was in the same store my entire career. I walked through the same door. Which was really . . . you know, if you think about it, in this day and age, people do not do that anymore. Our parents did. Our parents went to work for a company and they worked for 30 years and they got the gold watch and they retired and life was good in America, but that does not happen a whole lot anymore. In this day and age, there is frequently a history of moving up or out in 5 years and so people move around a lot. Back in those days, well, way before even the 1970s for me but our parents’ era, there was a loyalty to the company. You went to work for that company and they were good enough to give you a job and so you worked hard and you gave to the company and the company gave back to you and there was a lot of loyalty and trust, and I think maybe a lot of that has changed. With buyouts and mergers and what have you, companies have perhaps lost some of that. I am not saying that is good or bad, it is different. But yes, I stayed with the same company for over 37 years. Went through the same door day in and day out.
DG: When you were not working, what did you guys do for fun?
ES: Because my wife at the time was with the airlines, we did a lot of traveling, so that was good. The first few years, I just wanted to get to know Houston and acquaint myself with it. And also, the other thing was, you know, I was starting a new career and so I really threw myself into that and worked really, really hard and it paid off because then I started moving up the chain of command. And you have to keep in mind, when I first joined Foley’s, it was sort of like an overgrown mom and pop. There were only 5 stores and they were all here in Houston, so it was the downtown store and then there was Almeda, Sharpstown, Northwest, and Pasadena, and that was it. And so, during the period of time that I was with Foley’s and then eventually Macy’s, I mean, I saw just tremendous growth. And by the time I retired . . . well, before I retired, before we became Macy’s, we had 72 stores, so tremendous growth in that period of time not just in size but also geographically.
DG: So what was the downtown Foley’s store like? We have heard it mentioned in a lot of other interviews for this project. A young person starting his career – tell us about the store in which you worked.
ES: Well, you know, that store was built in 1947 and I think perhaps we have to go back just a little bit. Foley’s was started in 1900 by Pat and James Foley and there is a long history that went on prior to that, a lot of which I am not familiar with. I do know that the first day sales at Foley Brothers Dry Goods was a dollar and some change. And there was a lot of history that happened but I think a real turning point for Foley’s was in 1945. At that time, Mr. Cohen out of Galveston, George Cohen I believe his name was, owned Foley’s, and there were a conglomerate of stores called Federated Department Stores and the head of Federated was Ralph Lazarus and he came to Houston (this was during World War II) because his son was stationed at Ellington Field so he came down to see his son and while he was here, he looked around Houston and decided – you know what – this is a place where Federated should expand so they bought Foley’s. That was in 1945. And then, in 1947 is when they opened the existing downtown store which was really a phenomenon. I mean, the press came in from not only nationally but internationally. I was called “the store of the future.” First of all, it had no windows other than on the first floor and those were display windows. But when you think about it, for this climate where air-conditioning is an absolute must, it was ahead of its time. Now you look at it and you think, wow, it is just a big old box – it has no windows.
But it was a phenomenon when they opened the store. I have seen clippings of the newspapers where 8,000 people an hour went through the store. There is folklore that says it was the first escalator in Houston but then one time that was printed and somebody challenged it. I remember reading a letter to the editor and they said they thought the first escalator was actually in the Sears store on South Main. And then Foley’s came back and said, well yes, but this was the first double escalator, so two people could ride up next to each other. So, whatever. It is Texas! You always like to be first and the biggest and the best. But it was truly a phenomenal store. The store was so different than what it is today. It was quite high end and they had a couture department. On the third floor, they had the Crystal Room. There were signs on the doors. And, again, keep in mind, when I got there in 1972, the signs on the door and the slogan was “everything you are looking for and more,” and it truly was one-stop shopping. I mean, Foley’s sold everything from tires to – they had a pet shop, they had a book department, they had a record department. Everything. Pharmacy in every store. The downtown store alone had 7 eating establishments inside that store. Now, granted, the fifth floor was the Azalea Terrace and that is where the ladies would have the little tea sandwiches and what have you. The second floor started out as the Men’s Grill. Well, they got marched on. That was a part of the whole Women’s Rights Movement and then it became The Grill, wisely so. But it always was kind of a bastion for men because it was dark wood paneling and they served big, thick gully sandwiches and it was more of a man’s atmosphere. But then, there was the Picnic Patio, there was a cafeteria, there was the Brown Bag. I mean, there were 7 restaurants. That is unheard of in this day and age. So it was just a whole different atmosphere.
DG: You mentioned your affinity for civil rights causes. Foley’s was significant in the struggle here in Houston at a couple of very important times. Some of it predated you. Some of it probably continued while you were there. Do you remember any of that?
ES: Well, I do remember the first week I was at work and our offices were on the 9th floor. I remember coming back from the bathroom and going into my boss’ office and saying, “You know, it is so strange – how come there are 2 men’s rooms and 2 ladies rooms right next to each other down the hall? I think that is strange.” He was like, “Ed, integration did not happen down here until just a few years ago.” It was like a light bulb went off. I said, “Oh.” And then, the next time I went down the hall and I looked, I could see where they had pried the sign off the door that probably said “colored only” and it was the same thing with the water fountains. There were 2 water fountains next to each other. Well, that is not unusual because a lot of times, you go to the airport and you will see 3 or 4 and maybe they are in pyramids but the two restrooms right next to each other was strange to me. And then, what they did was they marked one because the 9th floor was open to the public – that is where the record department was and that is where, I think, vacuum cleaners and I do not know what all, so they marked one men’s public restroom and then the other one was men’s associates restroom, so that was like an employee restroom, and they did the same thing with the women’s. But there was a man who I met but did not know well named Bob Dundas. Dundas was the head of advertising, sales promotion and he was a force to be reckoned with. He was very instrumental in the peaceful integration of the lunch counter at Foley’s and at Woolworth’s, and the integration of the city. And basically, what he did . . . Foley’s was probably the largest advertiser with both newspapers and he contacted the TV stations, he contacted the newspapers, he called a meeting and basically he said, “Do you know what? If we don’t make a big stink about this, it is going to happen and it is going to be a peaceful integration.” This is what I have read anyway, and I know the man. He met with Quinton Mease who was a very, very influential man in the African American community and they all reached agreement that this was the best way to do it. And looking back on it, it was.
DG: Interesting. So lets talk about your personal story. You did the first job. You said you worked hard and you started rising through the ranks. Give me the resume and the sequence of your jobs.
ES: Well, my first job, I was Credit Promotion Manager and then, lo and behold, the credit manager dropped dead and so they promoted me to Credit Manager and I was like, I don’t want to do this, but, again, they were going back to my days as a bill collector. They thought I knew something about that. But I still got to keep credit promotion because I really did enjoy – that was the part of my job that I enjoyed the most. And then, they made me, it was called Business Development Manager. And so, I did that for a couple of years and the idea there was to bring new business to the company from a corporate point of view. We had a lot of what we called company accounts back in those days and, you know, one of the things that we sold a ton of, and again, keep in mind this is back in the 1970s, was calculators. Texas Instruments. We probably sold more Texas Instruments calculators than any other store in town, and they were big. I mean, they were not like the little ones now that you can put in your pocket. They were huge. Like, for example, Shell Oil – I am not sure how many corporate accounts they had where they could send somebody over to Foley’s and they could sign -- if a calculator pooped out, they could be back in business with a new calculator in no time at all and we just billed them once a month. So I was promoting the corporate accounts. And then, there was a woman who headed up advertising sales promotion named Myrna Greenberg Phillips. She was a wild woman. She was adventurous. She was always willing to take risks. She was out there. We became acquainted and she decided that I should come to work for her. And so, that is when I started heading up Special Events and then eventually PR and then eventually Community Affairs. With Macy’s, we had something called Visitor Services which was a program for visitors coming in from out of town.
DG: That is your personal story. The story ____ for the store itself – Houston went through a boom period, then there was a downturn. Tell me about what it was like for the store as a whole.
ES: Well, it was tough. The 1980s were very tough. You are right – it was boom and then it was near bust and only the strongest survived. A lot of companies went under during that period. But I think Foley’s came back even stronger as a result of that and actually things were going very well. We were expanding. In 1979, we opened our first store outside of Houston. That was in Austin. And then, we expanded to San Antonio and to Corpus Christi and other stores. And then, Federated decided to merge us with Sanger Harris which was the Dallas Federated store. And you have to keep in mind that the Federated group of stores made up some of the best name plates across the country. I mean, it was Bloomingdales in New York and Filene’s in Boston and Abraham & Strauss out of Brooklyn, and Murdine’s in Florida, and Bullock’s on the West Coast, I. Magnin, Rich’s in Atlanta. I mean, really an incredible group of stores that made up Federated. And they decided to merge the Dallas and the Houston units and headquarter it in Houston. Dallas has never forgiven us for that but, you know, life goes on. So when that happened, that was in 1987. Foley’s was then a major force to be reckoned with because we were the largest department store in the southwest. And then, I just lost my train of thought . . .
DG: You became large then.
ES: Huge, and from a buying point of view, all of that. And then, a real strange thing happened. One year later, someone named Campo decided to buy Federated Department Stores and he bought Federated with junk bonds. And so, he needed cash quickly once he did the transaction so he sold off the two most profitable divisions which were Filene’s in Boston and Foley’s in Houston, and sold them to the May Company. The May Company for years was kind of the rival. It was the Federated Stores and the May Company stores. May Company was a different philosophy and I am not saying it was right or wrong but Federated was always thought of more high-end, carrying a little bit better merchandise. May Company catered more to that broad, middle-of-the-road segment of the population. So, as a result, there was no more couture. The designer labels diminished. We were very successful, you know? It was a different era, a different set of merchandising principles. With May Company, it was like, you know, we are not Neiman Marcus and we are not a big bucks retailer either like a Wal-Mart or a K-Mart – we are catering to that middle-of-the-road. So it was very successful for a time. And then, after September 11, things, of course, were different but then, in 2005, things were very, very difficult for the May Company stores. They were finding it more and more difficult to compete and that is when Federated came in and bought the whole May Company chain. So overnight, Federated went from about 350 stores to over 800, so it became a huge, huge entity and, at the same time – not at the same time but it was a gradual process – they did away with all those names. So Filene’s in Boston went away, Rich’s in Atlanta. The only two names that stayed were Macy’s and Bloomingdales. And it no longer then was considered Federated Department Stores because Federated meant a federation of stores. Well, it was really just one store or two if you consider Bloomingdales as well. So that is when they started trading on the New York Stock Exchange under the Macy’s name, so it became just Macy’s, Inc.
DG: Foley’s was such a beloved institution in Houston according to the stories that we have heard anecdotally. What was the service concept at Foley’s?
ES: Well, it was incredible. When I first joined the company back in the 1970s, it was no unheard of for us on Christmas Eve, those of us executives, to load up something that did not make a delivery truck and deliver it ourselves. I mean, that was not unusual. Service was everything. And then, when you hit times that are tough and it is lean and you end up having to cut back, they tried to cut back office first but then eventually it comes down to the sales floor and you do not have nearly the number of salespeople on the sales floor that you had before and as a result, service is not what it used to be. But, by the same token, technology has improved tremendously so, you know, in the old days, if you were buying something, they would write it up handwritten on a sales check, with the advent of computers on the sales floor and the cash registers, it took buying and selling to a whole another level. I mean, at this point, if you are buying something, they can go into the computer and tell you how many more they have in the store, they can tell you how many they have at the Galleria store, how many are in the New York . . . I mean, they can tell you anything. So, with the advent of technology, they did not necessarily need the same numbers of people but it just changed.
DG: You managed Special Events, Promotions and Special Events. Are there any special events that stick out in your mind during your years there at Foley’s? You were so central to everything that was going on in the city – you probably supported things that happened in the city, other things that made us famous, as well as created moments of your own. Any that stick out in your mind as particularly memorable?
ES: Yes, there were a lot of them, really, because, you know, a lot of it went hand-in-hand with community affairs so if we were financially supporting an entity, be it the arts or health and welfare or whatever, frequently we would take it to another level and create an event around it or support it to take it to another level. We also did the Thanksgiving Day parade started in 1950 and that reported to me for the period of time that we continued to do it. We did that up until . . . the May Company did not . . . how do I say this? They did not feel that a Thanksgiving Day parade was what a department store ought to be doing so, yes, we had to turn it over but the good thing is by the time we turned it over to the city, that year, we had sold just about everything, all of the sponsorships. So it was not like we just dumped it on the city and said, “We can’t do this anymore.” So, the sponsorship was all taken care of and the parade still continues. That was something that we worked on year ‘round. It was very exciting. I remember one year, and I hope there are not any kids watching this, little kids, but Jim Barlow, who was a business reporter with the Chronicle, Barlow always had this snow white beard and this snow white hair and for a number of years, he was our Santa. Barlow was a fabulous Santa. First of all, he had a nice booming ho, ho, ho, but I remember one year in particular . . . and we would always have Barlow backstage and have him all dressed and ready because, you know, Santa is Santa and you do not want the little kids to see Santa in anything other than the full Santa suit. Anyway, so, one of the celebrities . . . we prided ourselves on bringing in lots of celebrities for the Thanksgiving Day parade because that is what made it exciting, you know, as well as the arrival of Santa and so, one of the celebrities we brought in that year was Natalie Cole, Nat King Cole’s daughter. She had several hits that year and she was hot. And we designed a whole float special for her and it was going to roll down the parade right in front of the Santa float. That morning, she decided she did not want to be on that float. She wanted to be up there with Santa. Santa was so high up in the air with his sleigh that you had to have a cherry picker to get him up there in that sleigh and once he got in there, there were no bathroom breaks. There was nothing until after the parade was over. And she said, “No, I’m not going down that parade route unless I am up there with Santa.” So, you know, you quickly make adjustments and get another microphone up there because Santa all he is going to do is ho, ho, ho. And actually, it turned out to be better the way it was because she sang her trademark song that year which had to do with Santa and, you know, the camera zeroed in on her and Santa and it was pretty fabulous but it was kind of a nail-biter there at the 11th hour trying to get her in that cherry picker and then we are thinking about all the liability if something happens and getting her up there. But anyway, interesting little things that happen through the years.
DG: You were in a position, as you say, to take things to the next level. Were there any times that you are particularly proud of where you were able to raise awareness of a particular issue, have an impact on how the city responded?
ES: You know, there is one that I think back on that really I was very proud of and if you talk to Jack Sweeney at the Chronicle, he will say that he was very proud of it. My boss, Myrna Phillips, came up with this idea to help eradicate child abuse and there was a whole child abuse prevention drive. We tied in with the Child Abuse Prevention Network and through the Chronicle and through Spider Man and Marvel Comics and, of course, they had the connections to make all this happen, a whole comic book was done and it was all centered around Foley’s and the Chronicle and Houston. And we brought Spider Man in, of course and we repelled him off the downtown store and it was just very, very exciting. It was a happening. It was something that people . . . Spider Man had appearances in the store, the kids lined up. It was huge but it also had a really important message to help stamp out child abuse. And it is things like that that I think that I feel the proudest of where, not only did we do something really big and significant and it was fun and entertaining for the public to see but it also had a strong message. Over the years, Federated and May Company and Macy’s as well, they were very, very supportive of communities where we have stores. I will say this – the May Company was probably all over the roadmap on donations. It was not focused. We used to jokingly say that Foley’s under the May Company, we would probably buy a ticket to a gala table if they were celebrating the opening of an envelope. But with Macy’s that were every bit as generous, it is much more focused which, looking back, that is the way it should have been all along because you cannot possibly be everything to everybody and, you know, with Macy’s, they focused on certain areas: women’s initiatives, which are breast cancer, heart disease, stroke and domestic violence. Another area they focused on was HIV and AIDS and youth and education and the arts. And if it does not fall in one of those categories, Macy’s does not support it. That is not to say that there are a huge number of really incredible organizations out there that do a lot of good but, like I said, you just cannot support everything. So I was pleased to see that for the last 4 years of my career that we focused on certain areas. But when we were Federated and even when we were with May Company, you know, strong supporters of the arts, strong supporters of education, strong supporters of minority issues – the Urban League, the United Negro College Fund, Avance – really prided ourselves on diversity.
DG: It may be difficult to answer this question but I am going to ask it anyway. There was a time when Foley’s was so central to the way Houston saw itself in terms of what went on there, in terms of how it sort of dictated the shopping seasons. It was, to us, what Sears must have been to Chicago. Certainly there are a lot of good retailers in town but it seemed, looking back and from the other interviews we have done, that the average citizen had a warm spot in their heart for Foley’s. Can you describe what that was like from the inside? Was that a conscious effort? Was it something you were proud of? Was it something that you cultivated? Or was it just sort of the happy accident of being the biggest guys in town at a time when Houston was not as big and spread out as it is now?
ES: Well, there is something to be said about being the biggest guys in town because that does have something to do with it but I think also being the biggest guys in town, you also have a responsibility and so, you know, everything from the Thanksgiving Day parade which was always kind of the official kickoff of the holiday season. We would pride ourselves in running full page thank you ads to the community. Like, at Christmas time, we wished everybody happy holidays. We would run what we called institutional ads celebrating Mother’s Day, Father’s Day. Do something that was not just selling merchandise, it was kind of warm, fuzzy, feel good type things. Sponsorship of 4th of July events. Yes, there are certain seasons, there are certain events that happened throughout the year that a lot of people say, oh, those are just hallmark moments. I mean, Hallmark comes up with a card for just about everything and a lot of the retailers do, too. I mean, the Columbus Day sales and the 4th of July sales and clearance and what have you but, you know, each of those do fall in a timeframe that is pretty important. Like, 4th of July, you know, you are getting around to the time when the kids are going to be going back to school. Now granted, it is a little early but you have to get rid of that spring merchandise also to get ready for the fall goods so, you know, there is a rhyme or reason to all those things. I know every year when we would put in what we called the Trim A Tree Shop and it was Christmas trees and cards and Christmas decorations – all that sort of thing. Well, that usually went in, in September and every year, the press would call me and say, “Oh, you people at Foley’s, my God, you are stretching Christmas out earlier every year.” We didn’t. We put it up the same time but they thought it was always earlier and, you know, there is a segment of the population that every year, they do something different for the Christmas holidays and they are decorating and what have you and they start early. And we did, too. We set it up for them. But the actual Christmas advertising really did not break until Thanksgiving. That is when it was aggressive.
DG: You mentioned that you are recently retired. So you have had a little bit of time to have looked back. What are your favorite memories of the time that you spent there at Foley’s, personally or in terms of what the store was able to accomplish?
ES: You know, I think some of my fondest memories are of some of the incredible people I worked with. There were people that are still alive that became my mentors, my retail mentors. When I first came to Foley’s, Stuart Orton and Milton Berman were the two principals and Stu had all the merchants and advertising sales promotions so even though it was one level away, he was my boss. I loved that man. I would walk on hot coals for him. He was a brilliant, brilliant merchant. He retired. There was another man that was there named Don Stone. Don Stone, for some reason, took me under his wing and gave me just some incredible advice over all the years, you know? He eventually became the vice-chairman of all of Federated department stores. I mean, he was like the number two guy in the whole chain of I do not know how many stores. He and his wife are still close, close friends of mine. They live in Dallas. They come to Houston all the time. Michael Steinberg was one of our CEOs that I think he was a true Renaissance man. Well, all 3 of those men – Don Stone, Stu Orton and Michael Steinberg. They were passionate merchants but they had so many other interests. I mean, they were incredible supporters of the arts. They loved the arts. Most of the performing and visual. They had so many other interests. And I looked at them, they are all retired. Well, Stu is dead now but Michael Steinberg and Don Stone, they are both retired although very active. And I looked at them and how they patterned their lives getting ready for retirement and I thought, you know, that is what I want to do. And so, I am loving every moment of retirement. And I am still active and I have not changed my schedule. I still get up – I am an early morning person and I get up and get dressed and shave and shower and get out the door, so life is good.
DG: So the Foley’s name is gone from town now -- it is all Macy’s – and this oral history archive is for the next generation. As a parting thought, what do you want them to know about this institution when it was Foley’s? There will be people that say, “Look, a store is a store.” Foley’s seems to have been different because of its commitment to the community, because of its commitment to service, because of its commitment to going the extra mile for the city in which it existed. What do you want people to know about Foley’s?
ES: Well, I think they need to know that it, like many other stores, was truly an institution and, at that time and place and point in history, it was an incredible force to be reckoned with. The Foley’s organization did so many incredible things for the community that it really is an important entity and something that should not be forgotten. But, do you know what? Foley’s, like many other companies, you know, you move on and things change. And there are buyouts and mergers. I am not saying that Macy’s is better or worse, I just say it is at a different point in time and a different place and a different way of doing business. Now, I am not saying it is right or wrong, good or bad – it is just a different place. But I also would tell people that if you really want to go back and look, we donated all the archives for Foley’s to the University of Houston’s archive school and it is going to be an incredible facility that they have built so it is protected. There are ads going back to 1900. There are all sorts of stuff. There was an 18-wheeler that hauled all this stuff out there so it is pretty interesting to see, and it will be there forever, hopefully.
DG: Great. I really appreciate your time. Thank you for doing this for us.
ES: Thank you.