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Woolco staffers recall exciting start, sad end

To mark the day when they learned their store was closing, 38 Woolco department store employees reunited Saturday under a Fossil Park picnic shelter to tell stories, study scrapbooks and rekindle camaraderie.

"We spent a lot of time together then," said Joyce Johns, 59, who began organizing the reunion of Gateway Mall Woolco workers in July. "Some of us still see each other. Keeping in touch after 22 years is remarkable."

Food covered the tables; Woolco ads hung from the shelter's uprights.

"Do you remember when Johnny Carson said there was a toilet paper shortage (in the late 1970s)?" said former assistant manager John Harden, 57. "We brought in four to six truckloads. People went crazy."

Several alumni bemoaned Woolco's closing. Others said they'd never forget the grand opening when traffic blanketed Ninth Street and waves of customers overwhelmed the new store.

On March 12, 1968, an Evening Independent headline delivered the news: "Woolco Opens Wednesday." Woolco, the paper wrote, would lead the new Gateway's 19 other businesses in creating an artistic, air-conditioned miniature downtown on what is now Martin Luther King Jr. Street between 77th and 83rd avenues.

A 15-page advertising supplement in advance of the opening included Beatles albums for $1.57, girls' Easter dresses for $2 and boy's suits for $5. Nearly 21,000 Woolco credit cards went out in a local mailing.

On opening day, March 13, winds howled beneath threatening skies as cars filled the 3,400-space parking lot. Mayor Don Jones arrived by helicopter. Woolco officials addressed the crowd. A uniformed German band entertained.

At 9:30 a.m. Miss St. Petersburg, Judy Senger, cut the ribbon fronting Woolco. "(Customers) were standing probably 10 deep," former employee Jean Lyon said. "Kids were crying. It was bedlam."

By 10:30, vehicles jammed both lanes of Ninth Street heading south for 35 blocks.

"It took me two hours to travel 3 miles to the store," said employee Peggy Turner, 72.

A reported 8,750 people per hour shopped at Woolco and Gateway, the county's first enclosed, air-conditioned mall. An estimated 90,000 visited Woolco, the 70th Woolco nationwide.

According to former worker Audrey Shaw, Woolco employees promoted business and friendship through the years with offbeat attire. "There was Hawaiian Day, Crazy Daze and Halloween. We had a party for everything."

Otherwise, Nora Mankowski said, Woolco's dress code was firm. "None of the women were allowed to wear pants, (and) we had to wear hose."

One Labor Day, several hundred customers camped in the mall's aisles awaiting a Woolco sale that featured a $99 recliner for $9.99.

"Woolco would give away items on holidays," said Clara Hirth, 86, a former merchandise manager. "People would answer in a big way."

"When Woolco ran ads," Lyon said, "we had to stand on the counters when the doors opened to get out of the way."

George Latzo, store manager from 1973 to 1983, said the Gateway store created its own advertising and was among the chain's profitable stores.

"It was just good work, good friendship," said Latzo, whose former employees helped him celebrate his 65th birthday Saturday.

"This is a lot better than my birthday 22 years ago," Latzo said.

On Sept. 25, 1982, Woolworth announced the closing of its 336 Woolcos. Woolworth was the nation's fourth-largest retailer with 1,300 Woolworth stores, plus Foot Locker and Kinney shoes.

About 20,000 full-time and 5,000 part-time employees nationwide lost work. When the Gateway Woolco closed on Jan. 31, 1983, about 90 employees were laid off. "It was like if a car runs over you, you ask, "Why me,' " Latzo said.

On the last day, personnel shared chili, Cuban bread and champagne. "Heartbreaking," Johns said. "We were just one big family."

Scott Taylor Hartzell can be reached at