People must never be sacrificed for success

It’s hard to imagine what a big outing shopping was a half-century ago. Driving to Watertown. Twenty miles north on Route 12.
What fun we had in the back seat of the car! And it was even more fun to walk up and down the square. Looking in the shop windows. Buying clothes for school. Taking a break on the benches by the fountain.
Almost my favourite place was the mouth-watering bakery at the edge of the square. My father said they made bread just like his mother’s, and we always took a loaf home for supper.
There was Grant’s and The Beehive. And Empsall’s if you were rich enough. And J.R. Miller’s for men. But best of all there was Woolworth’s, where even a child could afford to shop. Woolworth’s wasn’t called the “5 and-10” for nothing!
What I didn’t realize then, and only learned much later, was that I wasn’t shopping in just any Woolworth’s store because Watertown, N.Y. was F.W. Woolworth’s hometown. And the store was labelled “Birthplace of 5 and 10 cent stores.”
Although his first real store was opened 80 miles down the road in Utica, it was in Watertown where Frank initially tested out his dream of selling things for five cents to people who had that much money to spend.
Since then, I’ve always been a little nostalgic about the local boy who made so good. And I deeply regretted the passing of an era when F.W. Woolworth announced the closing of all its stores last month.
It seems almost tragic how short a time success lasts in life. But still, I rationalized, there must be a lot to learn from Woolworth. How he pursued a dream with integrity and became a household word around the world. Yes, that’s what I thought before I started reading.
What I discovered to my amazement was that the tragedy of F.W. Woolworth was not in the unravelling of his empire but in the building of it.
To begin with, the upstate farm boy just wanted to make a living. And besides, he liked selling things.
Frank worked hard, and on Feb. 22, 1879, at age 25, he opened his first store in Utica. The first day’s take was $9; and in no time at all, the young man knew he had failed.
Many people would have given up at that point but not Frank Woolworth. He was sure he had the right idea but the wrong location so he moved to Lancaster, Pa.–and an empire was born.
As a rich man, Frank was greatly enamoured with himself. He gave his wife and children money to spend and fine homes to live in but little else. He never visited his aging father, and contributed nothing toward his living.
At age 59, he insisted the whole corporation be named exclusively for him, leaving out his colleagues. He underpaid his sales clerks and yet built the tallest building in the world as a monument to himself–the Woolworth Building.
Legend has it that one cleaning woman asked another, “How is it any man can build a buildin’ like that?”
“Tis easy explained,” said the other, “your 10 cents and my 10 cents.”
No question about it, the boy from Watertown had a great gift. But according to biographer James Brough, it seems he forgot the importance of people and, consequently, had a tragic life.
The whole sad story made me think of a young preacher who one Sunday morning about a year ago prayed, “Save us from a world in which wealth accumulates and people decay.”
I wonder what would have happened if F.W. Woolworth had lived by that prayer.

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