Happy birthday, Mr. Hammons and farewell, Mr. Wessel

Maria Hoover, SBJ Features EditorInterviewing businesspeople from all walks of business is just part of the grind that comes with my job, so it’s a good thing I enjoy it. There are, of course, the interview subjects who are unforgettable, but there are also interviews I wish I’d done but missed my chances during the last 12 years. This month, two businessmen – one in each category – are on my mind.

For many people in the Ozarks, the name John Q. Hammons is synonymous with hotels. But to me, Hammons is the one who got away. Through the years, Hammons has spoken with many of my newsroom colleagues, but I never interviewed him.

On Feb. 24, Hammons celebrated his 93rd birthday – an occasion which we were reminded of by a colorful ad that graces the back cover of SBJ’s Feb. 27–March 4 print edition. Given that health reasons led Hammons to step down from the helm of John Q. Hammons Hotels & Resorts in 2010, it’s not likely that any of us will get another chance to interview him. From what I’ve gathered from colleagues who did, Hammons was quite an entertaining interview subject whose train of thought switched tracks rapidly. Reporters had to stay on their toes, and be prepared to steer the conversation to the desired line of questioning repeatedly, but still, I never heard anybody say that a talk with him was boring. I’m a bit wistful for having missed my chance for a Hammons chat.

I suppose, however, that reflecting on one who got away makes me more appreciative of the many terrific businesspeople I have gotten the chance to meet. Among them is car salesman extraordinaire Don Wessel, who died Feb. 6 at the age of 86.

I interviewed Wessel twice. Both times, we met at his office – his preference, I remember, was always for an in-person meeting – and neither time did I leave without being given plenty of time to fire away with my questions.

I first met Wessel in 2001, working on a story about the phaseout of the Oldsmobile brand, which at the time, had been Wessel’s flagship brand for 35 years. He had some blunt words for the GM corporation regarding what led to the downfall of the brand, but he wasn’t crying in his milk. Wessel was confident that his dealership would persevere, and since it’s still kicking more than a decade later,  now focused on Honda, looks like he was right.

The second time was six years ago, when Wessel was 80, and I went out to interview him for our “A Conversation With …” feature. We talked about everything from his career – he started selling cars in 1954 and came to Springfield in 1956 – to gas prices to Wessel’s first car, a 1938 Oldsmobile he had to park on a hill so it would start.
That day, he’d also brought along one of his vehicles, a Rolls Royce, and he talked about taking it out for a drive on Sunday mornings. Clearly, Wessel was a man who loved cars.

Life is full of opportunities, some we miss and some we take. While I regret never having talked to Hammons – a couple of times, I had the chance, but left it to more seasoned co-workers – I am thankful for the two chances I had to sit down with Wessel, who played a key role in making local car sales competition what it is today.

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