I played tennis with Sam Walton

Yes, the man who conceived, founded and built the mighty Wal-Mart. What a man he was! Everything he did, he gave his all to. That, I found out, included tennis. I’m remembering a match on his home court in Bentonville, Ark., when my pro partner, John Newcomb, and I faced Mr. Sam and his partner, Rod Laver. Mr. Sam had to be in his late 60s by then, but he ran for everything, and if he got his racket on the ball, he was likely to put it away. The other three of us will never forget what a competitor, what a happy scrapper he was.

I played in the annual golf and tennis tournament actually hosted by John Phillips and his grocery store chain, but Sam Walton took a very active part, as he did in anything that involved his beloved Bentonville. He and I shared a private early breakfast at a diner he frequented, and we talked about marketing, especially gospel music. He always wanted his vast and growing empire to be family friendly, offering every good product at the lowest possible prices, and we constructed a plan to feature gospel music more prominently.

Already at more than 4,000 stores, his music department offered most everything, and he was personally concerned that some of it was anything but family friendly. Increasingly, he would be informed by customers that a number of albums contained profanity, strong and explicit sexual material, angry and violent imagery, all kinds of stuff he didn’t want to sell anybody – but he didn’t know what to do about it, since neither he nor his employees had time to listen to all the records the national distributors would place in his racks.

So I told him about, and subsequently introduced him and his top buyers to, the PMRC. That’s the Parents Music Resource Committee, created by Washington wives, including Dee Jepson and Tipper Gore, wife of Albert. These ladies, mothers all, made it their business to check the lyric contents of all the records being marketed relentlessly to their kids and other mothers’ kids. They lobbied successfully to force the record business to either print the lyrics on the outside of the records, or more often, put advisory labels or stickers on the covers – so that kids and their parents were warned about what their children would be hearing – before any purchase was made.

For several years, they advised Wal-Mart and helped keep it “family friendly.”

Sensible, right? Responsible, sure. And Sam Walton loved it. The record companies grumbled, complained and used the dreaded “censorship” word. The late Frank Zappa, he of the Mothers of Invention, actually testified before some congressional committee, invoking (like “Hustler” magazine’s Larry Flynt later) the First Amendment as if somehow letting people, especially young people, know what they were buying was encroaching on their “rights.”

But Sam’s folks, prompted somewhat by me, reminded the committee that food companies had to put their ingredients on soup cans and cereal boxes. It wasn’t “censorship”; it was truth in advertising. It was responsible; it was family friendly. It was right – simply the right thing to do.

I loved Sam Walton for that.

So, years later, when other people began to complain about the size and prices and almost unbeatable competition Wal-Mart displayed, and stories kept popping up in publications charging the juggernaut with “unfair competition,” non-union employees, of not treating employees right – all kinds of bad publicity, whether well-founded or not – I called the top brass at Wal-Mart and offered my services, my name and reputation, if they could use them, to help counteract these negatives. And they took me up on it, adding me to a sizable group of volunteer citizens who confer from time to time, sharing ideas about how to keep Wal-Mart’s family friendly image strong and true. I still love the Sam Walton I knew, and I feel protective toward him, since he’s not here to personally direct his own business.

This year, instead of bowing and kowtowing to militant atheist and super liberal “political correctness,” so-called, I’m thrilled to see that Wal-Mart has banished “the Grinch” that threatened to steal Christmas, and will be advertising Christmas sales and playing Christmas music – and not conforming to the total “Holiday” imagery and advertising of other milk-toast wimp marketers. Again, the family friendly vision of Sam Walton lives on! I believe he’s smiling somewhere, possibly in the presence of the One whose birth Christmas celebrates.

So imagine my surprise, my shock really, when I read yesterday that this venerable company, the international outgrowth of Mr. Sam’s personal vision, has agreed to automatically donate 5 percent of online sales directly to the Washington, D.C., community center for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people! The cash donation will come from online purchases made at Wal-Mart through the homosexual group’s website. Every purchase made online for books, music, videos, clothing and accessories, children’s clothing and toys, and electronics will automatically send 5 percent of the sales to the CCBLBT organization.

The American Family Association Action Alert, a widely read Internet news source, says this latest move follows Wal-Mart’s joining the National Gay and Lesbian “Chamber of Commerce,” and agreeing to give generous financial help to that organization also. The AFA, and I predict many other family organizations, are calling for a post-Thanksgiving boycott of Wal-Mart. In fact, they’re lining up 1,000,000 families who will pledge not to shop at Wal-Mart or Sam’s Club on the Friday or Saturday following Thanksgiving.

If the boycott succeeds, it won’t bankrupt Wal-Mart; but it may send them a message, loud and clear.

And I suspect Mr. Sam is not smiling about the sudden flak, or the actions that caused it. The man I knew was a conscientious deacon at the Methodist church, and his own family are wonderful people, still honoring their mom, Helen. He was a rock ribbed “traditional values” guy, and while he loved everybody and loved serving them, his own staff has told me of situations in which he took a stern, fatherly, moral stance with employees who weren’t representing his American Christian values. He considered them his “family” and tried to lead them accordingly.

There’s a distinct line between allowing people to live their own lives as they choose, and underwriting and endorsing, even promoting, choices and actions with which you fundamentally disagree. Mr. Sam was determined that his stores would always be “family friendly”; and suddenly, the millions of families he always catered to are seriously pondering the mixed messages coming out of Bentonville. I think he would have remained benignly neutral and non-condemning toward homosexual groups – but would never have donated to their causes.

How ironic, if Wal-Mart banishes the Grinch – but has its Christmas sales stolen by the gays!

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