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Leaving a Legacy, 11/13/2018

While it was only just recently announced that Sears filed for bankruptcy, its demise was actually a long-time coming.  The closing of the once retail giant, once the largest retailer in the world, should serve as a cautionary tale that nothing lasts forever.

Most of us remember Sears, even if for nothing else, for their expansive retail stores. Others may remember the Sears catalog, a wonderful, telephone-sized book that showcased everything from tools and gadgets to barns and houses. Originally intended to reach rural America, it became part of mainstream America, and by 1940 Sears accounted for one percent of the entire U.S. gross national product as they launched new product lines including Craftsman tools and Kenmore appliances. Sears truly was the Amazon of the early and mid-20th Century, until ironically enough, Amazon came along.

Along with R.W. Sears, there were two other founding partners: Alvah Curtis Roebuck and Julius Rosenwald, both of whom served as presidents of Sears. Rosenwald gave Sears its physical presence where one could buy paint, a suit, and a radio all in one place.  One of their business partners and competitors was S.S. Kresge. Kresge’s path would cross frequently with the Sears team, as all were well known titans in the merchant industry. By the time of his passing in 1966, the S.S. Kresge Company operated 930 stories with 42,000 employees and was the second largest retail store in the U.S., behind Woolworth. In 1977, the S.S. Kresge Corporation changed its name to Kmart, as Kmart was a fast growing chain and among the first big-box retail chains. At its peak, they operated 2,171 stores.

In 2005, after Kmart emerged from its own bankruptcy, Kmart and Sears merged, forming Sears Holding. And so the closing of Sears recently, meant the last of the Kresge businesses too. 

And yet because of their contributions and efforts, their legacies will endure. Rosenwald? No one knows he was one of the founders of Sears, yet for many who grew up in the South know the name Rosenwald. In partnership with Booker T. Washington, Rosenwald helped build nearly 5,000 schools and another 350 shops and teachers’ homes to provide disadvantaged African American children, growing up in the deep Jim Crow South, a chance at a decent education. By 1928, one out of every five schools in the South was a Rosenwald school. These schools were progressive, rethinking the school design to address concerns related to sanitation, lighting, heating, ventilation, and more, all to create the best learning environment for its students.

Kresge won’t be remembered for Kmart or his thrift stores, but rather for the his foundation, the multiple buildings he built through universities and hospital systems, and our very own Methodist Children’s Home Society, where he provided the initial seed money for our campus and endowment. In a New York Times article upon his death, it read that Kresge “was also an active supporter of the Methodist Children’s Home near Detroit…”

So even though businesses and companies may come and go, and more and more nonprofits are closing their doors, we, at MCHS never lose sight of what’s truly important—a strong legacy to ensure we are able to help abused and neglected children for decades to come.

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