Penney’s store is gone, but ‘family’ still together

June 30, 2014
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Jim McNutt / Observer-Reporter
Mary Lennox, left, holds up a sign with Vickie Wilson at her side. The two organized a bus trip for former J.C. Penney employees to attend a Pittsburgh Pirates game Friday. Order a Print
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Jim McNutt / Observer-Reporter
Janet Jack, left, of Washington gets a hug from Margie Syfrett of Claysville. The two were among a group of former J.C. Penney workers who took a bus trip to Pittsburgh Friday for a Pirates game. Order a Print
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Jim McNutt / Observer-Reporter
Former employees of J.C. Penney in Washington gather in front of a charter bus complete with signs and Pirates shirts Friday before heading to game in Pittsburgh. Order a Print

Mary Lennox spied the sign Peg Lucy held aloft, smiled and laughed at the appropriateness of her handiwork.

“‘We Are Family’ has two meanings,” Lennox said. “J.C. Penney is family, and that’s the old Pirate slogan.”

A 36 1/2-year employee, Lennox is a linchpin of the extended Penney family nurtured at Washington Mall, until corporate shut down the South Strabane Township store May 3. She helps maintain the strong social bond among those dislocated workers and employees who left or retired in previous years.

Her latest endeavor Friday entailed taking her JCP kin out to the ballgame. To support that other family.

Lennox helped organize a bus trip to PNC Park to watch the Pirates take on the New York Mets. She ordered 50 tickets for an evening of baseball, banter, hugs and lots and lots of laughter.

And joyous cheers late into the night. The Pirates won, 3-2, in 11 innings, and no one suggested leaving early.

“That would be like walking out of church before services are over,” Lennox said.

This was a spirited group from the moment they started gathering around 4 p.m. at the East Beau Street Park-n-Ride, bearing signs, T-shirts, caps and other paraphernalia for their jaunt to Pittsburgh. One member had a shirt from the 1980s with “Penney’s Backs the Bucs” on the back.

One bold young man cheerfully accepted the mild rebukes he expected by donning a Mets jersey.

Lennox, of West Washington, had tickets for former employees and any relatives or friends who wanted to join in. Only one was not used – the bus driver’s.

No one was happy about what the company did 55 days earlier, forcing about 100 employees out of work or to relocate to a more distant Penney’s. But Friday, many were thrilled they would be together for seven or eight hours, the equivalent of one of their memorable work shifts.

Their evening on the North Shore was scintillating almost upon arrival. The driver parked near McFaddens, close by the stadium, and the musician performing outside the bar/restaurant was Josh Jenkins, one of the displaced workers.

“That wasn’t planned,” Lennox said.

A good time was planned, though, and executed for nearly four dozen people who appreciated their Penney’s years.

“I worked there for 22 years – 22 wonderful years,” said Lucy, of Cokeburg, who retired in 2011. “It was the best place I’ve ever worked.”

Vickie Wilson of Washington, who chartered the bus, had retired from two previous jobs. She called this “my retirement job – and they took it away from me.”

She said she enjoyed her three years at the mall site. “Everyone seemed like a big family, so accepting of me,” she said. “I laughed every day. We even laughed the last day.”

Maureen Luginski of Washington, a 15-year employee when the store was shuttered, said she was comfortable and contented at Penney’s. “We have good people. There was a lot of cohesion between the associates and managers.”

Sharon Curry of Eighty Four was the manager when the store closed May 3. She likewise reveled in the camaraderie.

“I’m really happy to stay in touch with the J.C. Penney family,” she said. “They’re very special people. It’s a bond no one would believe unless they experience it, and it comes from all ages.”

Following three-plus decades on the floor, Lennox likewise has appealing memories. “It’s been a good family. My children and grandchildren grew up with the store.”

She said there are two branches of this family that congregate regularly. One is a group of retirees who, for about 20 years, get together for breakfast every Tuesday. Another group meets every third Thursday at various dining spots.

Most actual families, of course, are dysfunctional to a point. The Washington Penney’s clan does not appear to have an element of that, which was evident in early May.

“Eight of us went to Florida right after the store closed,” Lennox said.

Even more sunshine for the Sunshine State.

Rick Shrum joined the Observer-Reporter as a reporter in 2012, after serving as a section editor, sports reporter and copy editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Rick has won seven individual writing awards, including two Golden Quills.

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