"Just $5.00 And An Idea"
George Pepperdine was born June 20, 1886. The Pepperdine family was of English descent. George's great-grandfather, Aquila Pepperdine came from Yorkshire, England in 1779. He settled in upper New York State. He had three sons, one of which was Robert, George's grandfather. When Robert's family removed to Illinois in the 1850s, they settled in Montgomery County. It was there that on April 9, 1853 that George's father, John, was born.
Mary Lain was born on a farm near Berea College, in Berea, Kentucky. Mary had learned at a young age the struggles of life as her mother died when she was twelve. This left her to learn quickly the responsibilities involved in domestic life as she helped in the care of her father and siblings. In 1878, Mary's father, F.W. Lain, moved his children to Montgomery County, Illinois because of difficulties on the land in Kentucky. There she met John Pepperdine and the two fell in love.
Young John Pepperdine, like so many in his day, had a longing for the West. His dream was to have some land staked out in the west, to marry Mary, and move his new family to live there. So, in 1879 he started out on his own. He reached Kansas, and found out about the availability of some land near the town of Mound Valley in La Bette County. He purchased 80 acres and returned to Illinois to marry his true love. John and Mary were married in 1880. Two years later a son, Fred, was born, and the small family moved to Kansas. It was in June of 1886 that young Fred got a little brother, and George was introduced to the world.
Living in the sparseness of southeast Kansas meant that social life was minimal. Thus, when a religious revival was announced in the area, the young family saw it as a wonderful opportunity. John's religious background was of the Episcopal Church, while Mary's family had been connected with the Baptists. The Church of Christ had been planted a few miles away in the town of Parsons. And from that group a tent-meeting was planned for the area around where the Pepperdine family lived. They attended the meeting, hearing the message of the cross. They both were immersed into Christ, along with a few of their neighbors. John and Mary were faithful members of the Lord's church all their lives. This was George's introduction to New Testament Christianity.
In 1891, the Pepperdine family enjoyed the blessing of a third son, Ben. The following year they moved to another farm nearby, and closer to where the boys could attend school, and where the church was stronger in number.
As young George grew up on the farm he, like all other kids of the same station, worked the farm. He had his share of chores and farm work. He learned to milk the cows, and help in the fields. He and his brothers picked watermelons, cantaloupes, pumpkins, and other produce from the gardens. At a young age he displayed a sense of wanting to make and invent things. He was often referred to as a boy who was, "as full of ideas as a dog is full of fleas." He made wind-mills and built a home-made boat. When he was fifteen he hued out wood to fashion a gun, a muzzle-loader. He attended the local Fairview Schoolhouse where he received his education. He attended school between 1898 and 1903.
In 1903 John sold the farm and moved the family to Parson, Kansas where Fred and George began furthering their education at Parson's Business College. After two years George graduated and took his first job with a local gas company making six dollars a week. Later, in the year 1905, the 19 year old was offered a job as a stenographer at Checotah, Oklahoma. This job was for the Lafayette Brothers, who operated a general store, grain elevator, and a cotton gin in the little town. Within a short time he returned to Parsons, Kansas to take a job as a book keeper for a plumbing company, making $40 per week. After a few months he heard of stenographic and book keeping opportunities in Kansas City. So, in 1906 he went to Kansas City, Missouri where he took a job the Truitt & Company, a large Real Estate Firm on Ninth Street. He worked with book keeping and collections, as the company had a good size rental business. He made $10 per week, $5 of which went to paying for board. He also located a congregation of the church of Christ and began attending. As he missed his family intensely, it was not long before he again decided to return to his home in Parsons.
In 1907 the family moved again to the country and farm life. George tried his hand at raising chickens, but it ended in failure. Within a few weeks he saw that the only way to make it would be to once again go to Kansas City and seek work. He found a job at the Equitable Life Assurance Society in Kansas City, Missouri. He was employed to do stenographic work there, but the work was very busy and tedious. Not long after, he found a job working in a Garage designed to sell and service the new automobile industry that was beginning to catch on throughout the nation. He had seen his first car only a couple of years earlier, but the prospects of being a bookkeeper in a business office sounded very suiting to him. With it, he made $12 per week.
At this point it should be noted that George had made with himself the acquaintance of a fine young Christian woman whom he knew from back home. Her name was Miss Lena Rose Baker from Mound Valley. Though they had known each other through the years, their relationship had not ever matured to the point that it had taken on over the last number of months of his life. With the new job in Kansas City, George decided to ask Lena to marry him. In a quiet ceremony with family and friends the young couple married on October 17, 1907.
The newlyweds settled into a small apartment that very soon became cramped. However, moving meant more outlay, which they did not have. Very soon money became a real concern. George began thinking he needed to look around for a better job. He enjoyed the automobile business, but he needed resources for his family. He thought about opening a business, but doing so called for capital, something he had little of.
Over a short period he began noticing the advertisements that came to him in the mail from all over the nation, sales papers for clothing, machinery, farming implements, and many other things. It was then that the young entrepreneur came up with the idea of trying to supply automobile parts through mail order. At that time cars would leave the manufacturers with very little additions to the central working of the vehicles. Things like tops, wind shields, bumpers, speedometers, tail lamps, spare tires and jacks, etc. were extras. With his connections through the Garage he made contact with owners of parts houses with his plan. They committed themselves to sell him their parts discounted. He then went to a printer, to whom he explained what he was thinking. The printer was so excited that he said he would produce the advertisements on credit. So he worked up a sales paper with auto parts to be mailed. He went to the Post Office and with $5 he bought 500 one-cent stamps that he and Lena licked and placed on the advertisements. Within a short time he began to get requests for parts. They were sold on a cash basis. So, in March, 1909, in the city of Kansas City, Missouri, with a $5 investment, the twenty-three year old, started a company that before long came to be known as Western Auto Supply Company. In its hay-day there were stores in nearly every major city throughout the United States employing several thousand people. Within a few years of that investment a number of magazines ran an article about this young man entitled: How $5.00 And An Idea Became A Multi-Million Dollar Business.
Within one year, the mail-order business had sold over $12,000 in car parts, and this was before Ford's Model-T's were numerous in the country. By the end of the second year he had sold over $22,000 worth through the mail. His sales in 1911 were $46,000. His first Auto Parts Catalogue was produced for 1911, 1912, and the later year saw gross sales exceed $67,000.
By 1914, the then Western Auto Supply Agency had a good sized store at 1426 Grand Avenue in Kansas City. Missouri. That year he produced a catalogue called, "Ford's Owner Supply Book," in which he offered the widest range of accessories available for the nationally successful Ford Model-T. With this, sales sky-rocketed from $106,000 in 1913 to over $229,000 the following year.
A temporary setback occurred in June of 1914. George suffered a hemorrhage in his lungs. After testing it was determined that he had tuberculosis. It was suggested to him that much good had been done for sufferers of the disease in higher climates. So he and his family left the business with reliable personnel and headed for Denver, Colorado. For ten weeks doctors treated him with serums, to the point that he could return to Kansas City. By the following winter, George knew that the weather in Kansas City was too harsh for his disease. Plans were made for a permanent departure for Colorado. In 1915, the first branch store of Western Auto Supply Agency opened at 1564 Broadway in Denver, Colorado. Sales continued to increase in both locations. Total sales for that year were $270,000.
With his eyes looking ever westward toward California, he decided to sell the Kansas City store. He sold controlling interest to Mr. Don A. Davis, a man who had done printing for him in the past. With this he was able to get some ready cash to make his move to the west.
In January, 1916 the family moved to San Diego, California. For a number of weeks George settled into his new life in southern California. The weather was better for him, but he still needed to take time to get stronger in health.
One of the first things he noticed in San Diego was the lack of cars on the road. With this he decided to go up and visit Los Angeles to see what was happening there. The city was bigger, and the expansion of business seemed to have better possibilities there. When arriving in L.A. he walked down Main Street from 10th to 14th Streets, which was the principle area where the car business was most centered. George found an empty building that he rented for $75 per month on the corner of 12 and Main Street. The store opened March 16, 1916, his wife, Lena's birthday. He had about $4000 in inventory with which to begin. By the end of the year it had quadrupled. By 1920, Western Auto Supply Company had over eleven stores spanning from Los Angeles to Seattle, Washington, Phoenix, Arizona, and Dallas, Texas. The Los Angeles store was boasting of over $700,000 in sales that year, and the combined total for all the stores was over $2,000,000.
In 1923 a four story and basement corporate headquarters was built at the corner of S. Grand Avenue and Eleventh Street in Los Angeles. The grand opening took place on November 6th. The mayor of the city was in attendance. It was grand day and time for the Pepperdine family and the city of Los Angeles.
The 1920's were good years for Western Auto Supply Company. By the time of the Stock Market crash in 1929, George had over 170 stores in the West and Midwest. As the business moved into the 30's "belts were tightened" and the period did not destroy the business as it did so many others throughout the nation. However, those years did affect the Pepperdine family in a personal way. George suffered a terrible loss on January 18, 1930. His wife, Lena, had purchased two love birds while on a trip to South America. Not long after her return, she went for a visit to Hawaii to visit their daughter who was married and lived there at the time. Not long after arriving, she got very sick and ultimately passed away. It was determined that she had parrot fever, and that she had gotten the sickness from handling the two little love birds. This was a devastating blow to George and his family. She had been such a support to him as a wife, and also as a business partner. She had been personally involved in running the business for over ten years.
Another thing that happened during that time was that George discovered something about himself and his blessing that he had not seen so clearly before. God had blessed him with great wealth, and with it came a great amount of responsibility. He began seeing that with these blessings that had been poured out upon him it would be necessary to bless the lives of others.
In 1939 George made a decision to sell his interests in Western Auto Supply Company. A company out of Minneapolis, the Gamble-Skogmo Company purchased George's controlling shares, freeing him to retire, and serve the needs of others. The company did continue to grow into the nationwide chain later known simply as Western Auto.
George Pepperdine was a faithful Christian. He saw that his first and great responsibility was to seek ways to further the cause of Christ around the world. With it he also sought to utilize his blessing to enhance his own spiritual growth and development. Yet his thought of concern went beyond the borders of the kingdom as well. He helped young boys in Los Angeles by building Y.M.C.A.s and Boys Clubs. He financed Boy Scout projects. In 1931 he established a foundation through which he could channel his gifts and where income and earnings would be tax free. Though he had no extra money at that point, he knew that in years to come it would facilitate his abilities to help others in need.
In 1932 while involved in charity work, he was introduced to Helen Louise Davis. She was at a social affair he was attending in a nearby church. He learned that she was the daughter of a dentist, Dr. Harrison L. Davis of Los Angeles. She was also very interested in welfare needs of individuals in society. He knew that night that she was the woman for him. Without her being aware of his personal interests, he helped her get a position in the Protestant Welfare Association, a group of which he took much interest. Her job was to do field work, visiting poor families in need of relief.
As time when on Helen became more and more aware of George's personal interest in her. The fact that he was sixteen years older than her did not seem to matter. At the age of 48 George married his 32 year old bride on June 17, 1934, about four and one-half years after the death of Lena. With the growth of business in the 1930's, so grew the family. Helen gave birth to their first child together, George II, who was born November 29, 1936. Another son, Wendell, was born in 1941. Later still, a daughter Marilyn, came along.
The growth of the family did not hold back the continued interest both George and Helen had in the welfare of their community. In 1937 the Pepperdines founded the Helen Louise Girls' Home. This was for non-delinquent girls whose homes had been broken up by separation, divorce, or death of parents. Additionally, in 1939 the couple became Board of Trustee members in the Casa Colina Convalescent Home for Crippled Children.
It was during this period that George began to pray in earnest about a way in which he might make to greatest kind of contribution to help the needs of his community. His deep interest young people was something still very important to him. The foundation he established received constant requests for help. Many of the requests were being declined for numerous reasons, and George was searching his heart, and his God to find answers.
Early in 1937 a good friend by the name of Hugh M. Tiner began approaching George concerning the possibility of starting a Christian college. Tiner was a supervisor for high schools in Los Angeles County at that time and active within churches of Christ. A graduate of Abilene Christian University (then College), Hugh Tiner had determined that the west coast was in desperate need of a Christian College. So, he went to George Pepperdine for assistance. Interest for a college was not something George had given much thought to over the years. He had not received a college education himself. Though he saw the advantages of a college education, he also had witnessed some disadvantages. He had seen how young people raised in good homes had gone off to college for a good education, only to fall into the hands of liberally minded professors who did more damage than good.
Each time Tiner would approach Pepperdine about the subject they would have good discussions. At the end of each discussion, George would say, "I would like to think about it a little more, and pray about it a great deal." Discussion continued between the two dreamers. Finally it got to the point that Tiner was receiving more questions than he could answer. He suggested that contact be made with Dr. Batsell Baxter. Brother Baxter had been president of Abilene Christian University when Tiner was a student there. He had also served as president of Lipscomb University (then David Lipscomb College), in Nashville, Tennessee. If anyone could answer George's questions, Dr. Baxter was the man. Within a few weeks Baxter willingly made the trip to California to discuss the potential for a college. Upon his arrival in early February, the three met together for an evening of discussion. Initially, Baxter asked George what kind of school he wanted. George smiled and said, "That's the whole trouble, Dr. Baxter. I don't know exactly what I want. I know one or two things I don't want. I don't want another college that will be dependent upon the churches for support. I have in mind a four-year liberal arts college, an institution of higher learning where any worthy boy or girl, regardless of his religion, or financial standing can get an education. And I want it to be a college academically sound, based in Christian faith. Is that too much to ask?" Dr. Baxter smiled. "I couldn't think of a more worthy goal." With that the men set out to achieve a workable plan to begin the new college. At the end of a long and tiring evening George expressed that he was pleased that all his questions had been answered, and that he was now convinced that a college was both feasible and essential. With this admittance he then said, "Now we must decide on where to locate it and get it into operation as quickly as possible." With this the two educators looked at one another in consternation. After a moment of hesitation, Hugh inquired, "When do you have in mind opening the college?" George replied firmly, "In September!" As the two men walked back to the car Dr. Baxter remarked to his young companion, "An extraordinary man. No wonder his is a millionaire."
George began immediately seeking ways to raise funds for the school. He sold some Western Auto stock, and borrowed some against his shares in the company. The following day the three met again to look for some property on which to build a school. Dr. Baxter agreed to come and be president of the college for a year or two to get the school established. Finally, a 34 acre tract of land was found in the southwest section of Los Angeles between 78th and 79th streets and between Normandie and Vermont Avenues. The property was purchased for $150,000. Immediately four building began being constructed on the property including: a three-storied administration building, used initially for classrooms; a dining hall, and two residence halls, one for men and the other for women.
By May of that year Dr. Baxter had returned to California after fulfilling his duties at Lipscomb. A small qualified faculty from across the nation was gathered together. Hugh M. Tiner was selected as Dean of the College, and J. Herman Campbell was selected as Registrar. By July 1st, Miss Marian Wright, the selected librarian was cataloguing thousands of volumes. The dean of women, Miss Martha P. Middlebrooks, and the dean of men, J. Eddie Weems, worked with Helen Pepperdine in selecting the furnishings for the buildings. The women's residence was named after Marilyn, the two-year old daughter of George and Helen Pepperdine. The men's residence was named Baxter Hall, after the first president of the college.
Batsell Baxter noted two very different things about this college that he experienced that was different from any colleges he had worked with in the past. First, this was the first college he ever helped that did not require the need for help from many people. This college had one financial resource, George Pepperdine. Second, this was the first place he was aware of where the chief financier had no interest in running the school. In fact George did not even want to have the school named after him. Yet after much pressure from Baxter, Tiner and others, he finally agreed to allow it to be named after him.
Very quickly news traveled across the nation, and requests for admittance began rolling in. Soon it was determined that enough students would be on hand to get the school started at the September deadline. Finally the day came, September 21, 1937, when the school was dedicated. In attendance were many dignitaries. A speech was made by California Governor Frank Mirriam in which he recognized that it was a great day in the history of the state. He praised the founder as being a man of vision and generosity.
Registration for classes took place on September 24th, and with it classes began. The heads of the departments of the college included: Dr. Baxter, president and professor of Bible; Hugh M. Tiner, Dean of the college, and professor of education; Callie Mae Coons, professor of Home Economics, R.R. Coons, professor of Science; Edward C. Petty, professor of Business Administration; C.P. Roland, professor of Mathematics (Note: C.P. Roland never taught at Pepperdine, though an offer was made for him to come and teach); Wade Ruby, professor of English; and Jay L. Thompson, professor of Social Science.
George immediately took a great interest in the work of the college. He made his first speech to the student body in November of that year, and visited the campus as often as he could. He was still the president of a large corporation that demanded much of his time. Even with a full plate, George still managed to engage himself on the campus for things such as building and expansion projects that were continuously ongoing. Through the hard work of Tiner and Baxter, the college received accreditation within seven months, and conferred its first B.A. degree by June, 1938.
Over the next twenty-five years George made numerous appearances on the campus. He addressed the student body in chapel, and at graduation exercises, and other events. However, he never saw himself as a preacher. He had maintained a faithfulness to Christ all his life, in his home, his church, and his business. He wanted to give something to the world that summed up his beliefs and understanding of the Scriptures. So, before the outbreak of World War II, he wrote a booklet called, More Than Life. In it he presented four different aspects of Biblical teaching: One, an appeal to readers to accept Christ as Lord of their lives; Two, a vivid, coherent statement of Bible teaching on the plan of salvation; Three, to identify very definitely the New Testament church in the world today; and Four, a reasonable, workable and Scriptural basis for unity and co-operation of all believers in Christ in the midst of a world of confusion. The book went through a number of re-writes, but in the end it was reprinted several times through the years, over 3 million total. It was distributed among many churches, and used for outreach purposes.
The 1940's proved to be difficult years for the Pepperdines. George had sold his controlling interest in the Western Auto Supply Company in 1939. Many of the proceeds of the sale of his stock were placed into the control of the Pepperdine Foundation that he had started eight years previous. The Pepperdine Foundation was more than a simple storehouse of retirement funds. Investments were being made by the charity to build its assets, intended to be used to endow Pepperdine College. This is where over a period of the next ten years George and Helen saw all they had accumulated over the years disappear, leaving them in financial ruin. Many of the investments the foundation participated in were very speculative in nature. Poor advice from people in trusted positions, with continuous looses incurred led to the need for dissolving the foundation in 1951. Millions of dollars were lost as the creditors and lawsuits continued to come. As Pepperdine College had been protected by being an entity completely disconnected from George's control, it did not suffer the onslaught of the debt collectors. But once the money was gone, it was truly gone.
During the last eleven years of George Pepperdine's life, it was a few shares of stock that Helen controlled, stock that he had given her years before, which gave the two of them a comfortable living. There was not much, but enough to keep the two comfortable. Through it all George maintained a humble spirit. He took the attitude of Job of old, "The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord."
In 1959, George in his 73rd year, began having physical difficulties that began taking toll on his body. He reported in the final pages of the biography from which most of this sketch comes, the severe decline in health he was enduring. That year he developed a serious gall-bladder condition. Additionally he came to find out that the large artery, the aorta, near his heart, was greatly enlarged and had developed into an aneurysm. Surgery was considered and rejected due to fear of mortality during the procedure. This particular artery affected how the blood was pumped into the legs. In short, it caused more and more irritation in bending or stretching the legs. Continuous pain in his legs caused him to need to give up driving, and move to the use of a wheel chair. By his 76th birthday, June 20, 1962, he was bedridden. Then on July 31, 1962 George Pepperdine left his terrestrial home to go and be with the Lord.
The funeral service was conducted in the Pepperdine College Auditorium. Speakers included President M. Norvel Young, William Teague and Dean J.P. Sanders. Roy Osborne, from San Leandro, also participated in the service. Burial took place in Inglewood Cemetery, in Inglewood, California. Thus ended the life of a man who started a small empire with $5.00 and a lot of spiritual backing. He lived to see his company became a household name throughout the United States. He left a heritage through the founding of a college, now University, which bears his name. His last years saw the demise of his fortune, leaving him to surmise, "Faith is my fortune!"
By Scott Harp
-Sources: Two volumes: Faith Is My Fortune, and Faith Was His Fortune. Both of these biographies on the life of George Pepperdine were gleaned in the production of this sketch. The quotes and facts came from these two books.
Evangelistic Tract Written By George Pepperdine
Directions To The Grave Of George Pepperdine George Pepperdine is buried in one of California's largest cemeteries, Inglewood Park Cemetery. It is located in Inglewood, a western suburb of Los Angeles. From LAX (Los Angeles International Airport) travel east on Century Blvd. Go under I-405 and continue traveling east. You will enter the city of Inglewood. Turn left on Prairie Road. When you pass the big Race Track/Casino on the right you will begin passing an extremely large cemetery. Go until you come to Florence Road and turn right. Enter the cemetery from Florence.
720 East Florence Avenue
Inglewood, California 90301
Open 8:00am-5:30pm Monday-Friday
The best way to find the Pepperdine plot in the cemetery is to enter the cemetery from W. Manchester Blvd. The Section where the Pepperdines are buried are directly ahead. See pictures below to judge location in the section.
Location: Evergreen B-499
North Entrance To Inglewood Park Cemetery
Pepperdine Plots In Foreground. Note The South
(W. Manchester Blvd.) Entrance of Cemetery in Background