Ex-backup singer befriended Wal-Mart founder

By Don McAlavy: local columnist

Wal-Mart broke ground for a store at the North Plains Mall on Jan. 10, 1985. It was the mall’s biggest anchor store.

Construction on the Wal-Mart Supercenter at 3728 North Prince St. on the old Charles Sorgen homestead started in 1998. A lake alongside Llano Estacado Boulevard going west from North Prince was named Sorgen Lake. It is just southwest of the Wal-Mart store.

Bob Linville, a backup singer for Buddy Holly and Normal Petty, worked in management at the North Plains Mall Wal-Mart. He was often called to business meetings at the company’s headquarters in Rogers, Ark. He became good friends with Sam Walton and Walton’s family. My sister,
Mary Bowman, also worked in the stockroom at Wal-Mart and was a good friend of Linville’s.

Walton began his career by opening the first of several Ben Franklin franchises in Arkansas. Finding he couldn’t manage these franchises as he thought best, he gave them up and sought greener pastures.

He opened his first Wal-Mart in the rather small town of Rogers in the northwest corner of Arkansas.

In his retail store, his idea was to charge low prices for his merchandise, which soon became a model for all his Wal-Mart stores.

“Sell name-brand merchandise at low prices,” he said.

The wife of a Clovis High graduate helped teach the Wal-Mart folks how to make a bank deposit, according to a Clovis source.

Opal and H.E. “Shorty” Baldridge of Clovis moved to Rogers in 1948. (Shorty Baldridge graduated from Clovis in 1929.)

Opal loved to tell this story, told to me by a Clovis teacher who was a relative of hers. Opal was working the drive-in window at a bank in Rogers when the first Wal-Mart store opened.

The manager of the first Wal-Mart brought the money in a paper bag and put it in her drawer at the drive-in to deposit. They had not sorted bills nor change, and did not have a total. Opal prepared their deposit and gave them instructions on how to make deposits. (Opal died Dec. 9, 2005, in Walhalla, S.C., at 94.)

Wal-Mart’s success has been mainly due to the discount concept. Frank Woolworth, in 1879, made his Woolworth stores the original giant retail empire, as is Wal-Mart today. (This information is from Bob Batchelor of the History News Service.) Other discount stores failed because they didn’t adopt technological innovation quickly enough or because they pursued ill-advised diversification projects.

The problem that sunk Woolworth executives was they couldn’t imagine that Kmart would upend their company. Kmart never really viewed Wal-Mart as a threat in the 1960s and 1970s. Will there be a retailer that can out-Wal-Mart Wal-Mart? The answer is probably yes, reported Batchelor.

“Looking back at the history of discount shopping in America, it’s easy to visualize a line from Woolworth’s to Wal-Mart. Today’s discount retailers use the same methods Woolworth pioneered. They build stores in prime locations, squeeze distributors and offer low prices. Wal-Mart has mastered its gargantuan supply chain and used its size to force vendors to cut their prices. Technological innovations have driven down overhead. Savings have then been passed on to shoppers. Wal-Mart’s high-tech infrastructure is the real engine driving the company’s revenues. The economy goes as Wal-Mart goes,” said Batchelor.

Don McAlavy is Curry County’s historian. He can be contacted at:
dmcalavy@telescopelab.com