The shuttering of JCPenney in Carroll, expected in August or September, is tragic for a raft of reasons.
Not least of which is this: The store’s history here runs deep. Carroll’s JCPenney even boasts ties to the national leadership of the iconic American retailer.
Walter Neppl, one of the more successful Carroll County natives in history, a Halbur native who started at JCPenney sweeping floors and stocking shelves at the old Carroll store, ended his career with the company president’s reins in New York City.
Neppl, who passed away in 2008 at age 85 in Plano, Texas (the headquarters for JCPenney), served as president and chief operating officer of JCPenney from 1976 to 1982.
In 2004, then-Mayor Ed Smith and I walked through the Carroll JCPenney with Mr. Neppl as he was in town for a visit.
We learned a lot that morning.
Neppl was born on June 15, 1922, on a farm in Halbur, a son of Frank and Anna (Halbur) Neppl. Walt was the youngest of 11 children, and the family moved to Carroll while he was a youngster.
A 1940 graduate of Carroll High School, Neppl started with JCPenney here that same year based on a recommendation from CHS athletic coach Floyd Rombough, a friend of Soren Kudsk, then-manager of the Carroll store.
Neppl showed up at the store and asked Kudsk, “When do you want me to start?”, Neppl recalled in a 2004 Daily Times Herald interview
He started the next day at $10 a week.
“I said, ‘That’s all right,’ because I knew how to work,” Neppl said. “I had four jobs when I was in high school.”
While in school, Neppl worked at a produce house and gas station and delivered groceries and newspapers.
“We were young, and we liked to work,” Neppl said.
His career with JCPenney, like the occupational aspirations of so many other young men and women of his generation, went on hold during World War II. Neppl served as a bombardier in the Air Force, flying some 30 bombing missions over Germany.
He earned the Distinguished Flying Cross before coming back to Carroll and further distinguishing himself as a go-getter at JCPenney.
Neppl briefly considered college but spied great opportunities with JCPenney.
“I had enough education in the Air Force,” Neppl said. “I never did go to college.”
After his service in the military, Neppl married Marian Maher, a St. Angela’s Academy graduate. The couple had seven children.
On the professional front, Neppl made a mercurial climb through the company ranks. After returning to Carroll, he was appointed to management positions in Columbus, Nebraska, Colorado Springs and Denver, Colorado, before being sent to Albuquerque, New Mexico, to open a new store and run it in 1954.
Soon, success in New Mexico led top management to move Neppl to Pittsburgh as a district manager and then to the New York City office, where he would rise to the presidency of JCPenney.
Simply put, Neppl said, he understood merchandise and people.
“We like merchandise, we like people,” Neppl said. “Old Neppl wasn’t too smart, but I was smart enough to surround myself with experts. You have to be smart enough to support yourself with that kind of people.”
As president, Neppl oversaw rapid growth in the company, and local officials through the years have credited Neppl with ensuring a place for JCPenney in Carroll’s downtown.
“Why wouldn’t we have a Penney’s store here?” he said in 2004. “This has been a terrific market for Penney’s.”
The position in top management demanded a good deal of travel, Neppl recalled.
“I traveled a lot,” he said. “I traveled 100 days a year. I was in every market in the United States.”
He said service is always key to retail success as well.
“You have to take care of that customer,” Neppl said. “Every customer likes to be recognized.”