Colleagues not short on Hammons’ stories

Eric Olson, SBJ EditorFollowing the May 26 death of Springfield businessman John Q. Hammons, we asked Springfield Business Journal readers for their most memorable experiences with the iconic hotelier and philanthropist. I’m posting a few below and expect more to come in.

Thanks for the memories, Mr. Hammons.

 

—Marleen Pellham, a real estate agent at Murney Associates

“My husband’s architectural firm Pellham Phillips had just designed Juanita K. Hammons Hall. It was during one of the many related events that Mr. Hammons validated me as more than just the wife of Galen Pellham.

Mr. Hammons was planning a hotel convention center for Springdale, Ark., my hometown. As I shook hands with him in one of so many receiving lines he had to endure, I told him he had hired the wrong architectural firm to design that project and that the Springdale area is where my dad and family lived, so Pellham Phillips would be the best choice for this location. He flippantly asked me, ‘So who’s your dad?’ Surprised by any response from him and being moved along in line, I didn’t answer. Two months later, at another event in another receiving line, shaking my hand, he looked directly at me (not Galen by my side) and asked if I still wanted that job in Springdale. I said, ‘Yes, sir!’

He never forgot I was from Arkansas. He would always ask me, ‘How are those Hogs doing?’

Fast forwarding to the grand opening day with all the pomp and circumstance, the keynote speaker happened to be a close family friend, J.B. Hunt.

My dad had been his sales manager from the founding of his trucking company in Springdale. Johnny Hunt was a man with a great sense of humor. I told him the story of how I got this project for Galen, and Mr. Hammons’ off-the-cuff remark as to ‘who’s my dad.’ I said, ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if I introduced you as my father?’ He loved the idea, put his big arm around me, and we took off in search of Mr. Hammons (with Galen following, mortified at the prospect of what was about to transpire). With Johnny standing there grinning ear to ear, I said, ‘Mr. Hammons, I’d like you to meet MY DAD.’ I can still see his mouth – dropped to his knees! We all laughed (a little nervously) as I explained the joke. Thank goodness Mr. Hammons also had a sense of humor – and he never forgot I was from Arkansas. He would always ask me, ‘How are those hogs doing?'”

 

—Steve Counts, president of Digital Print Ink

Back in the early 1980s, I had a business selling tailor-made clothing. John Q. Hammons was at the top of my Top 100 call list. Finally, after several attempts, Mr. Hammons agreed to see me to talk about getting some tailor-made clothing. Before I could get started, he told me this story.

He said shortly after he came to town, O.T. Gillenwaters agreed to show him the ropes. One day, Mr. Gillenwaters said to John, ‘Son you need a good suit. Let’s go get you one.’ So they went over to Ed V. Williams Clothing store, and Gillenwaters picked out a suit in John’s size. Hammons said, ‘I didn’t really like the suit, but if someone is buying you a suit, you don’t want to seem ungrateful.’

Hammons said they went up to the counter to pay and as the clerk gave them the bill, Gillenwaters turned to John and said, ‘Well John, aren’t you going to pay the man!’ John Q. said, ‘I wrote the check and hurried across town to cover it, because it was more money than I had in the bank at the time.’ Hammons laughed so hard; he really enjoyed that story.

He was always friendly and engaging – just an average guy with an above average ability to make things happen in a big, big way.

Now, for the second part of the story, when Hammons agreed to buy some custom-made shirts. I never will forget how hard it was to measure him because the whole time he was on the phone and moving around his office. The shirts came in, I delivered them and waited a few weeks to call and see how he liked them.

When I asked Mr. Hammons how he liked the shirts, he said, ‘Not too good. My wife says they’re too hard to iron.’ My jaw dropped. I had assumed that Hammons would have his shirts professionally laundered, so I made the shirts out of cotton. It turns out, Juanita was ironing her husband’s shirts and 100 percent cotton shirts would indeed be a nightmare to iron. I later learned more about Mr. Hammons’ common-sense frugality, but it was a big shock to learn that the hard way. Here’s a man who gave away millions of dollars, but his wife still ironed his shirts!

I took another job soon after that and I would see Mr. Hammons in airports frequently. He was always friendly and engaging – just an average guy with an above average ability to make things happen in a big, big way.”

 

—Steven E. Minton, chief architecture and construction officer at O’Reilly Hospitality Management

“I went to work for Mr. Hammons on Jan. 2, 1985, and I didn’t see him for three weeks. We talked on the phone every day about what projects to work on and he would tell me about new hotel sites he was looking at. I discovered right away that Mr. Hammons was happiest when he was out traveling around the country. … A month after I had started, he walks into my office and tells me it’s his 65th birthday! I immediately thought, ‘What have I done? I just went to work for a guy who’s retirement age – there’s no way I’ll be here five years.’ Well, obviously I was mistaken. During the next 25 years, we developed more than 120 buildings, including 75 hotels, from coast to coast. We had a great working relationship and friendship, which I’ll always cherish.

Mr. Hammons was well known in the hotel development world as an expert in picking sites for future projects. He didn’t use professional feasibility studies. He had his own way of analyzing the situation. He worked hard at understanding the potential in a particular area and would make several trips before deciding to purchase a site. We had a three-step process which seems fairly simple but was the basis for our decision making: 1. Make sure there is a market, either existing or potential. 2. Find the best location available in the market area. 3. Build the best product for that market.

I went to work for Mr. Hammons on Jan. 2, 1985, and I didn’t see him for three weeks.

Several years ago, we made a trip to St. Charles to discuss building a hotel adjacent to the new city convention center. The meeting was a public forum with the City Council interviewing potential developers. We had gone through this process many times in other cities and didn’t spend much time preparing the presentation. We did know, however, that one topic of particular concern to the council was if the developer would be willing to build the project as an all-union job. It was discussed and decided by Mr. Hammons that when the question was asked, we were all to respond, ‘No, it would be an open shop project.’ We were going to hold fast even if it meant losing the project. The interview was going well and fortunately for the rest of us, when the question came up, it was addressed toward Mr. Hammons. Without blinking an eye, he looked at the council and said, ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans; we will build all union.’ We were speechless. Council was pleased and awarded us the project, and Mr. Hammons just smiled at us when he returned to his seat. He had decided, while standing in front of the council, that if he wanted this project, he couldn’t win the union battle. However, by accepting the wishes of the council and the unions, we were in a friendly position to negotiate future concessions and incentives from both parties. Mr. Hammons was always prepared to react to a situation, think on his feet and have a backup plan if necessary.”

 

—Jan Robbins, executive director at GYN Cancers Alliances

“My nickname for him was Henry; his nickname for me was Sally. There are a couple of great stories about how these names came to be, but they became a personal connection known by many but shared between he and I. Cards were addressed to and signed by Henry and Sally for many years.

Early in the development of University Plaza, I worked closely with Sen. John Danforth’s office in the writing of an Urban Development Action Grant for $3.8 million. It came time to fly to Washington, D.C., to meet with Sen. Danforth’s staff, and Henry said I needed to go with him and our St. Louis attorneys since I had been in on the deal since Day 1. I made flight arrangements with TWA for a one-day, up and back trip. Made it to Russell Senate Office Building, had a quick meeting working out final details and headed back to the airport ahead of schedule. He tipped our cab driver (not that much; I slipped him more after getting to the airport) to give me a quick peek of D.C. via Pennsylvania Avenue. Waiting for our flight, he took it upon himself to exchange our seats for an earlier flight. Proud of himself, we boarded and he quickly realized our new seat assignments were in first-class (huge no-no in the company; he never flew first class and neither did anybody else!). He made me promise not to tell accounting!

Everyone who knew him has a pocketful of great stories.

Dead set against the writing of a book about his life, after a diligent search for the perfect writer and collaborator up to the task, including personal and professional interviews around the country, a manuscript was finally ready for reading and review. Henry swore he didn’t have time to read it, so I offered to go through one or two chapters with him at his home on a Saturday morning. After much grumbling and grousing on his part, I showed up at 9 a.m. and we settled in. “Just the first chapter, Sally, that’s all I’ve got time for. I’ve got lots of phone calls to make!” He thought the first chapter was pretty good and that he might have time to hear the next chapter. So I read, and read, and read. He stopped me once so he could use the bathroom; later he asked if I needed to go to the bathroom. I began losing my voice, and he asked Mrs. Hammons to bring me a drink and some crackers so we could keep going. Three phone calls came in that morning; he told them all he would call them back as he was very busy. After almost five hours, all the water and crackers I could eat and two bathroom breaks for each of us, I drove away from the house and made the call to our company president, Lou Weckstein, to let him know that Henry loved it! Hallelujah!

I could go on and on. Everyone who knew him has a pocketful of great stories.”

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