By the end of my Winter Quarter at Mercer University in 1977 I knew that I would marry Debra Kay Johnson if she would have me and she had given me some indication that she would; by the beginning of the Spring Quarter I had begun to ponder the reality that I had no money and no job (except for the $60.00 that I got for my one Sunday a month gig as Pastor of the Fairmount Baptist Church somewhere outside of Sparta, Georgia) and decided to take steps to rectify the situation.
So one day I got in my 1974 Mercury Comet, drove out to the Macon Mall,
and filled out employment applications at all the major department stores there. I figured that, given my collection of two suits, two sport coats, and five clip-on ties, not to mention the winning smile and pleasing personality required of any Baptist ministerial student, I’d be ideally suited for a sales job. Besides, I also had three years of experience at Burnette’s Thriftown Grocery in my hometown of Barnesville, Georgia, where, had they given such a thing, I had no doubt I would have won the Most Popular Sack Boy Award all three years of my employment.
One Sunday night soon thereafter, I returned from an exotic weekend in my intended’s hometown of Leary, Georgia, where I had spent considerable time and energy using my winning smile and pleasing personality trying to impress her parents, to find a note on my door saying that a Mr. Montford from the Sears, Roebuck, and Co. branch at the Mall had called the pay phone on my dorm hall (the number that I had put on the application because it was the only number I had) on Friday afternoon and requested that I return his call.
I called him on Monday and he requested that I come see him.
So that afternoon I put on the best of my two suits (it was a three-piece beige number) and classiest clip-on tie and went to see Mr. Montford, who turned out to be the Manager of the Sears Display Department. He needed someone, he told me, to work part-time in the Display Department’s Sign Shop, because Jeannie Brown, the woman who ran it full-time, was out indefinitely on sick leave due to receiving cancer treatments and the part-time guy, a high school student named Wally, needed help.
I had no idea that the Sears store had a Sign Shop.
It did, though, and Mr. Montford took me back to meet Wally, who turned out to be a nice guy with whom I would work until he left to attend the University of Georgia, around which time Jeannie came back to work as much as she could.
It turned out that, while some signs describing the quality items for sale at Sears came pre-printed from Illinois or some other foreign country, many signs were produced in-house at the local store. My assignment, should I decide to accept it, said Mr. Montford, was to print those signs.
Here’s the way it worked: (1) Department Managers or Department Manager wannabees would turn in requests for signs each of which had to have a heading and at least three descriptive points (we had covered similar territory in Preaching class at Mercer so I was well-prepared to handle that aspect of the job); (2) I would produce the sign using either a primitive wood-block and ink roller system or a state-of-the-art machine called a Sign-O-Graph that involved pulling a handle to print letters on card stock; and (3) I would place the sign in the appropriate slot from which the Department Managers or Department Manager wannabee would retrieve it.
It was a good job with a good schedule; I worked 1:30-5:30 Monday-Friday and never on nights or weekends. I could clock in as much as seven minutes late and still be considered on time. I got a fifteen-minute break every afternoon. I didn’t have to dress up so I could wear the same clothes to work that I wore to class. The ink stains on my hands that took considerable scrubbing with Lava brand soap (with pumice!) to remove constituted the one downside; my sensitive skin took quite a beating.
Over the eighteen months that I worked in the Sign Shop in the Display Department at the Macon Mall I made enough money to buy Debra’s engagement and wedding rings and to save a little bit for our life together.
My main memories, though, are of the people with whom I worked.
There were Mr. Montford and his Assistant Manager Larry Falls who left while I was there to take a job at an outdoor advertising company and who came over to our apartment one night to watch the Muhammad Ali-Leon Spinks rematch on TV.
There was Foy Stevenson, who fascinated me with his first name and his free spirit.
There was a guy whose last name was Hutchinson whose nickname was Hutch but whom everyone called Gooch.
There were Kenny Thompson and Len Strozier, both of whom joined me in going into the ministry and in attending the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and both of whom I count as friends to this day.
And then there was Michelle Falduti, a young woman of olive skin and black hair who was absolutely gorgeous. I met her brother Michael, a chef who owns the Red Tomato Café in Bolingbroke, Georgia, at a fund-raiser organized by my daughter Sara for the March of Dimes in Macon for whom she was interning a few years ago. I said to him, “I’ve known one other Falduti in my life; I worked with a Michelle Falduti at Sears thirty years ago and she was beautiful.” “She still is,” Michael said, “and she’s my sister. In fact,” he went on to say, “she’s at my restaurant right now. Let me give her a call.” He did and as I stood there he said, “Michelle, I just met a guy who worked with you at Sears a long time ago.” She asked my name. He told her. She didn’t remember me. Clearly, and not surprisingly, I was not as memorable as she.
I’m remembering my time at the Sears store in the Macon Mall because it is one of the stores that the Sears Corporation has just announced they will be closing.
Soon the store will be no more but it will exist in my memory because I am and always will be grateful for the experience, the money, and—especially—the people with which it blessed me.