Sunday, May 24, 2009

Dallas, Texas - Memory Lane

I'm reading a book, "The Big Rich" by Bryan Burroughs about the rise and fall of the greatest Texas oil fortunes whose pages bring back many memories of the two years I lived in Dallas. In early 1961, Remington Rand Systems Division promoted me from District Manager of State Capitol Topeka, Kansas to Assistant Branch Manager of Dallas, Texas covering Dallas, Fort Worth, El Paso and Albuquerque, New Mexico. My boss, Branch Manager Frank Heller was Texas born, a member of the exclusive Downtown Dallas Club and one of twenty members of the Citizens Council, a group that basically run Dallas at that time in history. As an invited guest to the Dallas Club, I either met or had pointed out giants such as Clint Murchison, Jr., owner of the Dallas Cowboys, who in turn introduced me to Vince Lombardi, whose Packers were playing the Cowboys that day, Richardson, Bass, Jim Ling (aircraft designer and builder,Ling-Temco-Vought)and I believe Roy Cullen as well as several Texas millionaire oilmen, none of them had I ever really heard of. Now comes a book of 440 pages that tells the history of these men, women and children, that to this day, I never understood the impact they had on Texas and the country and the coming out of the H.W, Bush family.

Many of these men had rough beginnings as ranchers or less, some of whom made there fortunes in a couple years. I lived my first 18 1/2 years on a farm and perhaps that is the reason i was sent to Texas to be Heller's eventual successor. I was married to my lovely wife Dee and had three Children, Mark, (now deceased) and Mary Jo, both born in Heyworth (St, Joseph's Hospital in Bloomington), and Nancy Ann, born at Stormont-Vail Hospital, Topeka, Kansas. The Assistant Manager I succeeded stayed on as a salesman making many overt and veiled actions to try to prevent my success in building a depleted sales force.

By the spring of '62, Heller was forced to resign and the manager of the Cleveland, Ohio, Branch was brought in as Heller's successor where he had been demoted as manager of Houston due to some in-company politicking. Almost daily, Jim Sharkey filled me in on all the politics and intense rivalry between business and political factions in Houston and Dallas. And the politicking within the company of which I was also naive. Eventually, decreasing interest in filing systems led to the selling of the Sperry-Univac Division, Remington Rand Systems to a company later to be called Kardex, a product still sold by Widmer Interiors.

By 1963, the business cycle was running at a low ebb in the Southwest, rumors were floating as to the divisions future, so the company decided to eliminate the position of Assistant Managers at all branches except Los Angeles, Chicago and New York. I was offered several positions, one to head up the Library Division. The one choice my wife and I decided on was to return to Peoria as District Manager and by 1964 I would form a company and be given the Remington Rand Systems Franchise.

That is another story i have told once on this site. Lessons learned in Dallas helped me get the RR franchise and later Herman-Miller, and eventually succeed in business in Peoria, Phoenix and elsewhere.

But not before thoroughly investigating opening my own company in "Big D". I had the product lines picked out, a $10,000 line of credit and was set to resign when Dee and I made a mutual decision to return to the area where our mutual families lived. The company bought our house from us and moved us back to Illinois at company expense. We lived in a home we purchased at 806 Fondulac Drive until our divorce in 1973. Without the assistance of my ex-wife, I probably would never have been a successful business person.

What I did not realize how tight and parochial the Peoria Banks were. Even with a franchise, I could only get a $5,000 line of credit because none of the old fart bankers "knew my daddy". When I told them I was the last born of nine with a "dirt" farmer dad, they didn't believe I could succeed against the entrenched Kellstedt's, Jacquin's; (I later bought Jacquin's), the Defenbaugh's, Landgraph's, etc. While I struggled with inadequate finances all 28 years in business, I sold my company debt free with a 3A1 D and B rating. Widmer Interiors is the only company in Peoria in the Office Product business that still bears the founder's name.

In reading this book "The Big Rich" I only now understand how naive we were in believing that Texas would not be a lot different from the world my wife and I grew up. After all these years, I still marvel at our ignorance of Texans, their ignorance of places like Illinois and Peoria. Where is that? And, of course, our ignorance of them and their distinctive lifestyles.

Anyway, an interesting book for those who like to read about Texas and Texans in the big oil days.

Note: 4 months after I left Dallas, John Kennedy was slain by a gunman sniping from the Dallas Book Depository, I place I had visited early as we attempted to sell them a Kardex inventory system for all their school books. No sale, they had no money. Sound familiar?

The company moved us back to Illinois where I purchased a home on Fondulac Drive in East Peoria and on February 1, 1964, I opened as Widmer Office Products at 313. S. Jefferson St.; that whole block was later cleared out for the Civic Center and my business relocated to the corner of Lake and Sheridan. Later, we moved to University Plaza and in 1992 I sold the company which was renamed Widmer Interiors and is located on Allen Road across from Pioneer Park.

Did I ever regret leaving Dallas? Probably not although I have been back to visit a couple of times.


Anonymous said...

Dad, This was a great write up. I think I learned a few things. Interesting tie into to Texas. Happy Memorial Day.

Love Nancy

Dr. Thompson said...

where did you grow up?

Merle Widmer said...

Dr. Thompson,

I grew up on a farm between Congerville and Carlock, Il., youngest of nine kids. I was drafted in the army, transferred to the AF in 1945, used the G.I. Bill to complete ccllege at Western at Macomb, taught school and coached 5 years, joined RR for 8 years and started my own business in Peoria in 1964, starting with a secretary and aservice technician.