A Class Act

There are those one-word names that when mentioned are instantly recognizable, no matter who or what you’re talking about, whether worldwide or locally – Beyonce, Liberace, Ward’s, Sacks, Stricks.

Hattiesburg was home to its own one-word wonder back in the day – Waldoff’s.

For 70 years, the department store started by a Jewish immigrant from the Ukraine was a favorite of many.

The year was 1924. J. Edgar Hoover was named head of the FBI, Ellis Island was closed as an immigration entry point to the U.S., the first Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade was held, a silk dress went for $8.98, while a wool coat sold for $30. Hats were in the $3 range and shoes anywhere from $3 to $5. A man’s brown suit went for $23, but a grey suit was $26. Jimmy Carter, Lee Iacocca, Doris Day and Marlon Brandon were all born, as was the IBM corporation.

Hattiesburg was a young adult of 42 when Paul Waldoff established Waldoff’s in 1924; his son, Milton, continued its legacy through June 1994 when it closed, but not before making a lot of Pine Belt people happy.

Reliving the years when the store was a thriving business in four different locations of South Mississippi – three in the Hub City and one on the Gulf Coast – through Milton’s eyes is a veritable trip down memory lane.

While much of Waldoff’s history – records, photographs, bound copies of advertisements, correspondence and ledgers – is now a part of the Special Collections Department of the McCain Library on the Southern Miss campus, Milton still has his own personal collection of memorabilia he enjoys poring over and delving through. And it all has a story.

For Milton, there were a number of things that he enjoyed about the department store named for his family – pep rallies, special promotions, distinguished guests and loyal customers, but maybe most of all, were the fabulous people, known as Associates – who worked there.

He can share a story or two about most of them.

It was at the store at the age of 9 that young Milton swept floors for two to three hours a week for his father, thus garnering him a shiny 50-cent piece for his week’s labors. It became a learning experience where the value of a dollar was instilled in Milton by Mr. Evans, a Waldoff employee, who shared with a rather forlorn Milton that he had been paid only 99-cents a day at a previous job. Evans’ also had three sons who would go on to work for the store.

There was also an African American gentleman that everyone called Mr. Ed. In the ’60s, he was working at a cotton gin that was closing down, forcing its workers out of a job. “We were looking for a new porter at the time,” said Milton, who asked Mr. Ed to come in to talk to him.

 “He came in the next day in a suit and tie. I asked him about working for Waldoff’s and he teared up. He started working and was always one thousand percent, first rate and a classy guy.

“When he greeted you he had his own saying, ‘Everything going to be all right, just going to take a little time.’”

And then there was Betty Jenkins, “one of the finest ladies, I’ve ever known in my life,” said Milton. “Betty was unbelievable, good, she was first rate. She always had a big, huge smile, greeted everybody; nobody could make her mad. She was just spectacular and I don’t say that about many people.”

His first secretary following his father’s death was Mary Ruth Field, whose daughter, Mary Lou, also worked at the store.

And while the majority of his Associates were hired from around the Greater Hattiesburg area, Milton did bring in employees from big stores in New York, Wisconsin, Texas, and elsewhere across the nation.

“They were great, fabulous people that worked there. There was no other place I’ve ever been in my life, and I don’t credit myself, but no other place that had such fabulous people working there, some for 30, 40 years, who loved the customers and wanted to help and make the stores a success. I believed in my employees.”

The list of names Milton remembers is aston-ishing and the Associate list reads like a Who’s Who of Hattiesburg and included many family units.

Going to work

Going to work was not something Milton was terribly excited about, but was expected of him. “When I was in college at the University of Alabama, I’d been to New York on buying trips with my Dad and I didn’t want to come back to Hattiesburg,” he said. “I didn’t want to be involved in the store, but rather to live in New York.

Following a stint in the Army after college and at the age of 25, Milton got involved with the store. His first assignment, courtesy of his father, was to take charge as the buyer of the shoe department and when he’d proven himself there was transferred to the men’s department, where he continued to advance from there.

When Milton took the reins of the store after his father’s death in 1962, he had a plan.

“Initially, developing a plan to upgrade Waldoff’s to be competitive with the stores in town that sold ‘better’ – meaning more expensive apparel and shoes for men and women – was a top priority,” he said from his Hub City home.

“From 1924 (when the store was organized) to 1956, when I joined the store full time, Daddy’s

 

niche was very moderate apparel and shoes, and his biggest competitor was J.C. Penney. He often said if he could select the store location he would most prefer, it would be next door to Penney’s.”

Milton said he enjoyed developing a plan and exercising that plan “to become the best men’s and women’s specialty store in Hattiesburg by offering the top brands, with better service to the customer than they expected.

“The plan took years, it was ever changing, as were the times, the competition, the market, the city, the area, etc. That plan included my strong belief in advertising, then training associates, watching them develop into a unique team, and serving customers in a manner that would motivate them to WANT to shop with us again.'

From 1956 until his two children were born in the early ’80s, Waldoff’s was his baby.

“In the late 1950s through 1980 I was focused solely on Waldoff’s -- then, my only child -- who was mature, but needed constant nurturing,” he said. “Through the 1960s and ’70s, I often worked six or seven days a week …and long hours. Early on, only I did the buying, the merchandising and the advertising. Waldoff’s was my child!

“When Paul and Lauren were born, in 1981 and 1983, respectively, their mother, Sue, our housekeeper, Ruby Newsome, who was like a member of the family, along with their unofficial loving nanny, Jean Cargill, took great care of them. I was still busy planning, working and growing Waldoff’s.”

And grow it he did. Through a series of special promotions, advertisements and high-quality merchandise, Waldoff’s became well known and loved.

In addition to the many advertisements promoting different clothing brands, store departments, trunk shows and the like,  there were specialty ads recognizing different groups, organizations and causes – and not just locally.

There was a full-page Fourth of July ad featuring a flag that could be hung up; recognition when the United States won 174 medals (83 gold, 61 silver, 30 bronze) in the 1984 Olympics – the most ever; an ad giving kudos to Mayor Bobby Chain and the city when Hattiesburg was named one of the best towns in American; an ad when John Lennon was killed and one in support of the U.S. hostages being held in Iran during Jimmy Carter’s term as president; an ad touting the accomplishments of football legend Walter Payton (a dear friend of Milton); advertisements offering assistance after a particularly bad storm and ads supporting a variety of causes such as the Mississippi Special Olympics and that doesn’t even touch the tip of the iceberg. There were even ads describing the difficulties the store was having at times during economic downturns and the like.

Milton was not a proponent for Waldoff’s being open on Sundays and even ran a full-page ad expressing his thoughts. But when the store moved to Cloverleaf Mall, it became a must.

“I believed in advertising and we had an incredible advertising budget,” he said. “We were doing a million dollars a year in fur sales IN South Mississippi! These days you couldn’t give them away because of animal rights.” 

A popular promotion of the store was a special Tithe Day the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, when Waldoff’s contributed 10 percent of each purchase to the customer’s choice of religious institution. Milton explained that the customer would write on the back of the receipt the name of the church where they would like their donation sent. At the end of the day a letter would be sent along with a check to those churches.

It became so big that a couple of ministers wrote Milton asking they be reminded about Tithe Day before the next year’s event, so they could announce it from the pulpit.

“We did almost as much on Tithe Day as many stores do these days on Black Friday,” Milton said. “It was a huge hit, sometimes garnering as much as $20,000 to $25,000 on this particular day. Of course it didn’t start off that way. We had started that when Daddy was alive and he loved it.”

 

a little too much

Waldoff’s biggest competitors were Fine Bros. Madison, The Vogue and women shopping out of town when they’d go to conventions or shopping in New Orleans.

The move from downtown Hattiesburg to Cloverleaf Mall in 1974 was a tough one. At the time there were four Waldoff’s stores – downtown, Edgewater Mall on the Coast, Cloverleaf and Milton’s Ltd on Hardy.

“I was trying to do too much and was overextended,” said Milton. “I needed to close something and do something about cashflow. Downtown was still doing good and I owned that building as well as the Milton’s Ltd. building.”

 “Milton’s Ltd. was very profitable and carried traditional lines of clothing,” said Milton. “My friend  Bud Holmes told me I was making a mistake, but I was hardheaded and I closed Milton’s Ltd. and that was stupid. It should never have been closed.”

In those days, it was doing $580,000 a year in just several thousand square feet.

Milton had purchased the structure at 1311 Hardy St., the current Neal Building next to Keg and Barrel, from a Mr. Thrash, who was a barber in the Forest Hotel who cut Milton’s hair. “I bought it, remodeled it and it was a great store, but I should never have closed it.”

And although Waldoff’s closed 23 years ago, Milton still has keepsakes from the store -- prized suits, sport jackets, blazers, a tux, leather jackets, top coats, shoes, scarves, ties, etc.

“Many items must have shrunk in my closet, though, as they no longer fit,” he laughed.

Like the memories of others, there were innumerable things Milton enjoyed about the store, and times of the year.

“There were multiple times that were favorites each year,” he said. “Early each year we would have a tropical ‘Swim Shop,’ which added to the ambience.

“In the fall, when USM played home football games, we went all out -- full page newspaper ads promoting attending games at Southern and wearing black and gold.”

It was soon after that they were having a Pep Rally in front of the Downtown Waldoff’s location.

He noted that the Christmas season was always important to Waldoff’s.

“Starting downtown, we put a 24-foot fully-lighted Christmas tree on the awning, and the store was elaborately decorated.”  He remembers one season, when Waldoff’s Visual Merchandise Manager, the late Butch Boruge, creatively suspended hundreds of shiny colorful Christmas ornaments from the ceiling of the first floor. “People from everywhere came to admire that stunning display, and it’s one of my favorite memories,” he said. “Additionally, during the holidays we saw so many of our customers and friends, it was always a joyful and upbeat time of the year for everyone at Waldoff’s. Matter of fact, we would often have a special Christmas Party for Associates and their spouses.”

Those who worked for Waldoff’s were known as Associates and Milton mentions continuously while talking about  the job they did to make everyone feel welcome and a part of the Waldoff family.

The Waldoff’s Associate Policy Manual was simply a two-sided card dated Oct. 18, 1989. One side read, “This has been specially prepared for our Grand Opening Celebration, the content will remain in effect ongoing. (Please turn over): The opposite side read, “It is the responsibility of every Waldoff’s Associate to use his or her judgment to do whatever is necessary to make every customer happy.” It was signed, Milton Waldoff.

But just because Waldoff’s has been out of the picture for 23 years, Milton didn’t retire to sit at home. He and wife, Rita Mitchell, both work. “All the time,” said Milton, who formed The Waldoff Group in 2001, seven years after Waldoff’s closed.

Following the store closing, Milton became a real estate agent, then a broker in Mississippi, first  working with Kim Williams Real Estate, then with Don Nace of Coldwell Banker. He later worked as a broker with Abbott Real Estate in Destin, Fla.

“In 1998, I joined with a friend in Houston in becoming a retail store consultant,” he said. “Later, when he elected to open a chain of high-end western stores, Pinto Ranch, I formed the Waldoff Group and have continued consulting.” Milton says on the group’s website that when closing Waldoff’s in 1994 he hired a store-closing group to close the store and it was not profitable.

 “I work all day almost every day, assisting and advising retail clients with merchandise, inventory control, events, marketing, advertising, their many challenges and crafting profitable closing sales, when desired or needed.”

Rita works as the Certified Counselor of the Small Business Development Center at USM, and was recently selected as the Mississippi SBDC State “Star.”  

Rita also works with the Waldoff Group in its retail consulting business, and with her own clients.

Rita hails from Little Rock, Ark. She considers her service to the competitive and diverse Arkansas business community to be the secret ingredient of her life-long romance with retail.

As a young and relentless fashionista, she worked for the M.M.Cohn specialty chain while studying at University of Arkansas at Little Rock to become an English teacher. Upon graduation, Rita’s supervisor persuaded her to work three full-time months as his assistant instead of teaching summer school. From that flattering invitation, Rita’s 40-plus year bond with serving retail clients in fine stores was firmly launched.

She was selected for the legendary retail management training program at Woolf Brothers of Kansas City, where she managed women’s shoes, sportswear, dresses, coats and contemporary, along with men’s furnishings. She was part of the select management team that restructured and reopened the Country Club Plaza store after the devastating 1977 flood.

A family transfer took Rita to Fort Smith, Ark., where she began as the lingerie buyer for the Boston Store/White House specialty department stores. She quickly became the designer sportswear, dress, suit and coat buyer.

 In 1986, Rita leased a 1,500-square-foot space in the middle of her home neighborhood, and ELLE Contemporary Classics became Little Rock’s most innovative boutique.

 

A NOD TO THEN 

There was a popular ad that Waldoff’s ran that stated, “Where do you think you are, Waldoff’s?” It was overheard from a patron in another store as a customer tried to work through a transition, only to have the employee question them. It spoke volumes for the kind of service customer received from Waldoff’s. Milton remembers Hattiesburg resident Cheryl and Lamar Cranford’s tripletts being used in an advertisement, saying “Where do you think you are, Waldoff’s?” in unison.

While Waldoff’s is no longer around, it served the Hub City well for 70 years. These days it provides a business model that would behoove others to follow, as well as a nice collection of memories for others.

Waldoff’s was A Class Act and most definitely, the talk of the town.

 

Special thanks to Leon Waldoff, Maury, David Thornton, Jennifer West, Anne Sarphie, Ann Willoughby, Don Wilson, Marcia Holmes, Mike Richardson, Nancy Carpenter, Rosemary Mathis, Rose Mary Wilson, Susan Marquez and Tommy Blanton for their assistance with this project.

 

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