Normally, I have my morning coffee at my desk, sifting through missed emails and organizing myself for the day. But last Thursday, I had the pleasure of drinking my coffee with James Forthenberry, one of Kmart’s most dedicated associates. James recently retired from the Kmart store in Danville, Illinois, after decades with the company. In fact, he was part of the team that helped open the store back in 1963. And you can bet that after 53 years at Kmart, James had some stories to share.
In 1963, James, who was 19 years old at the time, was working for another retailer when he heard from a family friend that Kmart was paying $1.25 an hour. Excited about the possibility of getting a job with the company, which was paying 25 cents more than his current employer, he went to Kmart on his break to speak with the store manager, Mr. Green. When he arrived, Mr. Green was tied up and missed their appointment. James was sent to the HR manager who told him there were 40 other potential associates ahead of him for an interview.
As he walked out to the parking lot, Mr. Green ran towards him and asked why he was leaving so quickly. “I told him what the HR manager said,” James explained. “And he told me that he made the hiring decisions, and after reviewing my references, he wanted to hire me on the spot. That was it. Kmart’s been good to me. Every day at Kmart has been a happy day to me.”
Throughout our conversation, James continued to express gratitude and humility, making it so easy to see why managers, members and coworkers alike all speak so highly of their time with him. As we talked, his wife, Barbara, recalled the number of people who have driven from Indiana or Chicago just to shake her husband’s hand. “One man drove 300 miles to say goodbye and thank James personally,” she shared. James added, “Whenever people come into the store, they come in and greet me. I’ve seen a lot of our members grow up. The other day I was out cleaning the parking lot, and a women hugged me and told me she worked with me twenty or thirty years ago. That means a lot to me.”
James held four different roles during his 53 years with Kmart. He started on the floor crew working through the night from 10:30 p.m. to 8 a.m. He recalled placing cardboard boxes in the furnace room and enduring summertime temperatures that would test even the most powerful antiperspirant. He then worked for eight years in the garden shop. Next up, James managed the furniture and DIY department, which was his favorite job throughout the years. Lastly, James retired as a member of the store maintenance team, taking care of the building and parking lot.
“I enjoyed working for Kmart. Kmart is my bread and butter. How do you think I’m going survive? Like I told my boss, I have no complaints. How many people can say they’ve never been unemployed? How many people can say that? I can,” boasted James. He also shared that he has visited 48 out of 50 states in America. “I’ve been halfway around world and to almost every state in the union. How did I do that? I did that working at Kmart.”
And over those 53 years, James also had his hands full at home with 18 children, 100 grandchildren, 50 great grandchildren and two great-great-grandchildren on the way. When I asked James and his wife what kind of example he has set for his children and family, his wife quickly said, “Determination.” He added, “They copied me. All my kids all have jobs. Our children look to me as far as working and just sticking to what you want to do. When I go to work, I give 100 percent. That’s what they pay me for. I’m going to give 100 percent like they are going to pay me 100 percent.”
In closing, I asked James for any advice and words of wisdom for other associates. He told me two things, “Be kind to everybody. I’m kind to everyone, that’s why they like me. My manager used to tell everyone if they wanted a raise to be more like me.” He also encouraged me, when the time comes, to only have one boy and one girl. “Leave it at that,” he joked.
Thank you, James, for spending the morning with me and sharing your Kmart pride. The rest of James’ time at our corporate headquarters in Hoffman Estates, Illinois, was spent telling stories over lunch with associates, and enjoying a special celebration highlighting his accomplishments.