“Never wear anything that panics the cat.” – P.J. O’Rourke, American political satirist and journalist
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Going out of business signs at Beall’s department stores around East Texas recently was not so much a cause for panic for me as it was cause for some reflection on traditions.
Beall’s in Mount Pleasant was my first “real job” opportunity to dress up for work. As was the norm in most businesses then, my dad wore a dress shirt and tie to work every day as the manager of Perry Brother’s 5¢-10¢ store. Working at Beall’s meant I got to dress up like a businessman and work all day Saturday in the men’s department, even if I was only 15 and a sophomore in high school. Prior employment had been mowing yards and working at the Ben Franklin dime store on the north side of the square in Mount Pleasant where Corbin Merritt was the manager. For assembling bicycles and wagons, plus “trash management” and floor-sweeping on Saturdays, I earned 25¢ an hour—good money for a 13-year-old in 1961.
“Movin’ on up” (actually around the corner on North Jefferson Street) to Beall’s where Virgil Tolbert was the manager meant I could work a couple of hours after school every day plus Saturdays and at minimum wage—$1.25 an hour. But it was wearing a dress shirt and tie in the men’s department Saturdays that made me feel like “I had arrived,”
Male dress attire in the early 60s included a jacket and a tie, even for young males at school functions like banquets and proms. Dressing nicely was a carry-over from church services where just about from the time I could walk, I was required to wear a coat and tie every Sunday morning—a habit that I have not outgrown.
Beall’s assistant manager and really spiffy dresser, Gerald Birdwell, fine-tuned my wardrobe skills and taught me a variety of ways to tie a tie. He also reinforced my upbringing at home about how dressing for success and a sense of self confidence go hand-in-hand. Self-confidence and a positive smile were his trademark. Each task I completed satisfactorily earned his standard complimentary “thank you” that included, “… you’re a gentleman and a scholar, and your charm is exceeded only by your good looks.”
He was also a big guy who drove a big car—a 1958 Buick Roadmaster. Gorgeous cars, the ’58 Buicks had more steel in the front bumper than every nut and bolt of any car on the road today. He typically parked on East Third close to Lil’ Abner’s Cleaners, always leaving the keys in the ignition as was common small-town practice then. No one ever considered that their car might be stolen, after all everybody in town knew each other. Someone capitalized on that practice one afternoon, but stealing was not their motive. Air-conditioned cars were uncommon then except in expensive makes like a Buick. Mr. Birdwell found his car idling, the air conditioning on high, and the fuel gauge on low.
“Guess someone needed to cool off,” he laughed, adding that it would have been nice had they just turned the motor off when they left. Gas was 25-cents a gallon in 1964, you know.
My job at Beall’s came to an end when dad left Perry Brothers to work for McKellar’s Department store, a small East Texas chain. Beall’s policy prohibited family members working for competitors., so I moved on to other employment. However, working at Beall’s, my first “real” job where I got to dress up, has always remained a fond memory.
It’s sad that dressing up has slowly gone the way of cars built like ’58 Buicks, leaving the keys in your car, and 25-cent gasoline. But I’m holding out for a comeback for dressing for success. My closet contains four suits, four sports jackets and a rack of ties I enjoy wearing every chance I get.
And, I’m probably the only person you know who owns a tux just because they love occasions to wear one. But it’s been so long since my last occasion that putting it on now—well, that just might panic the cat.
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(Photo at top of the page: Men’s dress clothing ad circa 1966)
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