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“J.C. Penney and the Golden Rule"

John A. Murray
Fifth Prize - $2,000

An educator for 20 years, John serves as Headmaster of Fourth Presbyterian School in Potomac, MD.   A past Amy Writing Award winner, John has published numerous opinion pieces on educational, historical, and pop culture topics for The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Examiner, and Breakpoint, to name a few.  John also serves on the Newseum’s Educator Advisory Board in Washington, D.C.  He and his wife Barbara reside with their four children in Bethesda, MD.

Ron Johnson, J.C. Penney's CEO recently announced a dramatic plan to reshape the company's current approach to the retail market.


Unlike the previous barrage of nonstop, deeply discounted sale items, Johnson plans to stabilize Penney's stores by offering everyday low prices at 40 percent off the initial price, amongst other bold changes.


"Every initiative we pursue will be guided by our core value to treat customers as we would like to be treated — fair and square," stated Johnson.


In his recent State of the Union, President Obama echoed a similar theme of fairness: "We can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same rules. What's at stake are not Democratic values or Republican values, but American values. We have to reclaim them."


Obama and Johnson may be onto something.


Harkening back to the virtue that led to Penney's and America's founding, the idea of fairness strikes a chord that is missing in many businesses and Washington today —  treating others the way you want to be treated.


It was this principle that guided James Cash Penney's creation of "the Golden Rule Store" — one that revolutionized the treatment of customers and employees and changed the life of its founder as well.


Born the son of a Baptist preacher in 1875, Penney strove to live by Jesus' words known as the Golden Rule, "So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you." (Matthew 7:12)


Unlike today's 99 percent/1 percent class warfare rhetoric, Penney willingly started as a clerk in a dry goods store and worked his way up to eventually open his first establishment in Kemmerer, Wyo., in 1902.


In Penney's Golden Rule Store, his respect for customers was a rare practice during an avaricious business era -— providing quality goods at affordable prices.


Penney similarly honored his employees — whom he referred to as "associates" — by offering them a share of the profits. His incentivized work force led to a rapid growth in business. By 1929, Penney had expanded the retail chain across the country — adding close to 1,400 stores.


Penney's life was not without its hardships — with the death of his first wife in 1910 and his second in 1923. And with the 1929 stock market crash, he lost everything — $40 million — leading him to experience what he would later call a "dark night of the soul."


Entering the Kellogg Sanitarium at the advice of a close friend, it was here that Penney's life would change forever.


One morning after breakfast, Penney heard a familiar hymn coming from the small chapel: "Be not dismayed whate'er betide, God will take care of you ... All you may need He will provide, God will take care of you ..."


"At that time something happened to me which I've never been able to explain or describe," Penney said. "It was a life-changing miracle and I have been a different man ever since."


In his work "The Spiritual Journey of J.C. Penney," Orlando Tibbitts chronicles Penney's transformation into a life of true hope and purpose. And, while he later regained his wealth, more importantly, Penney's renewed faith in Christ led to his recommitment to serving others — whether the 99 percent or the 1 percent.


As Penney shared with students, "The secret of my father's life and my mother's life was the way they imitated the Master by giving of themselves with selflessness and sacrifice. ... They never separated the secular from the sacred. As God motivated people, they received blessings no money could buy and they left blessings upon all whom they touched."


And in our hyperpartisan culture, those are values worth reclaiming.


Printed in The Washington Examiner, February 2, 2012.

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