Eckerd, Jack Milton

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Eckerd, Jack Milton

(b. 16 May 1913 in Wilmington, Delaware; d. 19 May 2004 in Clearwater, Florida), philanthropist and business leader who pioneered the concept of chain drugstores.

Eckerd was the youngest son of J. Milton Eckerd, one of the nation’s first discount druggists, and his second wife. Eckerd’s mother died when he was ten, and his father sent him to Culver Military Academy in Indiana. Upon graduation in 1930, Eckerd enrolled at an Erie extension campus of the University of Pittsburgh, but he soon found that flying was his passion. He quickly left the university and enrolled in the Boeing School of Aeronautics that same year, graduating in 1933. Afterwards, he persuaded his father to buy an airplane and hire him as a transport pilot. Eckerd gradually learned the pharmacy business from his father, married, and started a family. In 1940 he bought a minority share in two of his father’s Wilmington stores.

When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in 1941 and the United States entered World War II, Eckerd volunteered for the U.S. Army Air Forces. With 3,000 flying hours, he qualified to be a flight instructor but wanted to be in the action. Eckerd subsequently logged 2,000 flying hours as an operational pilot in the Air Transport Command, ferrying bombers to Europe and supplies along the dangerous India-to-China route. During his service he received three Air Medals and a Presidential Unit Citation, and by the time hostilities stopped he had risen to the rank of a major. Upon returning home, he bought his father’s Wilmington pharmacies and planned to make up for lost time.

In the 1940s drugstores were small shops of about 1,000 square feet with products stacked high or behind the counter to be retrieved by a pharmacist. In 1947 Eckerd learned about some California pharmacies that were being operated in a different fashion. Hopping on a plane, he toured a PayLess Drugstore in Oakland and noticed the many shoppers packing a store that looked much like a supermarket with a great range of goods from cosmetics to housewares. Eckerd returned home and tried to apply the self-service, megastore concept to his father’s stores. (The stores that Eckerd owned were too small for self-service.) However, Milton Eckerd did not share his son’s vision and resisted the innovations.

In 1952 Eckerd bought three drugstores in the Tampa Bay, Florida, area for $150,000 borrowed from his half-brother Ken. Eckerd copied the successful California model by stretching aisles from the entrance to the pharmacy counter in back, then filling shelves along the way with an assortment of products, including soaps, plumbing tools, and fishing tackle. He stocked goods that other stores did not have the space to display and won customers with low prices. Eckerd also desegregated his stores three years before the 1964 Civil Rights Act mandated integration. At its peak in the 1960s, Eckerd Drugs was the nation’s second-largest drugstore operator and the biggest in the Southeast.

Eckerd is responsible for a number of innovations that dramatically changed retailing. He capitalized on the swelling senior citizen population in Florida when he pioneered senior citizens’ discounts for prescription and over-the-counter drugs in 1956. The company’s two-prints-for-the-price-of-one deal turned photo processing into a profit center rather than just a traffic generator. People flocked to Eckerd Drugs, in part because Eckerd pioneered the idea of locating drugstores next to supermarkets to increase foot traffic.

A hands-on businessman, Eckerd visited every one of his stores and typically wandered through storerooms to check for overstocked inventory. In an era before computers, he hauled vans full of receipts to his Florida waterfront home to check the addition on receipts. He even kept a personal listing in the Clearwater phone directory so customers could call him at home.

In the early 1970s Eckerd gradually withdrew from the company he had founded to pursue other interests. He remained on the board of directors but had little other involvement with Jack Eckerd Corp. With Eckerd no longer at the helm, the company began to struggle and eventually dissolved in 2004. Eckerd retired in 1986 and sold the last of his stock for $36.4 million. His fortune was estimated at $150 million in 1975 by Fortune.

Eckerd became a trustee of Florida Presbyterian College in Saint Petersburg in 1966. The school, established in 1958, is a coeducational, private, four-year liberal arts college. When Eckerd made a $10 million donation to the school in 1971, it became Eckerd College a year later. Eckerd was the college’s principal benefactor until his death, endowing scholarships, a youth ministry program, and campus construction projects. He served as the interim president in 1977 when the college was struggling to survive a significant drop in enrollment and as the chairman of the board from 1977 to 1981.

Of all that he accomplished, Eckerd said he was most proud of the camps that helped to change the treatment of delinquent children. In 1968 Eckerd started the first of his wilderness camps at a time when the state of Florida was housing runaways and juvenile delinquents in training schools that were little more than small prisons, complete with solitary confinement cells and attack dogs. Eckerd Youth Alternatives has since treated more than 60,000 teenagers in thirty-nine residential and community programs in seven states, from Florida to Vermont.

The charismatic Eckerd made his first run for political office in 1970 when he sought the Republican gubernatorial nomination in Florida. Eckerd lost, as he did when he tried for the U.S. Senate four years later. In 1975 President Gerald Ford appointed Eckerd to serve as the head of the General Services Administration, the management and acquisitions arm of the U.S. government. President Jimmy Carter, a Democrat, reap-pointed him, but Eckerd returned home soon afterward to toss his hat in the ring of state politics. In 1978 Eckerd won the Republican gubernatorial nomination with the message that government was big business and it was time to have a businessman run it. He lost the general election.

Weakened by a stroke suffered in 1998, Eckerd died in 2004 of pneumonia. He is buried at Camp E-How-Kee, one of the Eckerd Youth Alternatives camps, in Brooks-ville, Florida. He was survived by his second wife, Ruth Binnaker Swann Eckerd; seven children; seventeen grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren. A man with boundless energy, Eckerd changed the face of pharmaceutical retailing. His innovations created the modern drugstore, with its wide variety of goods, cheap photo processing, and senior citizen discounts. He also understood the social responsibility of wealth. While Eckerd Drugs has vanished, Eckerd’s good works continue to benefit the American people.

Eckerd’s autobiography, Eckerd (1987), with Charles Paul Conn, is the chief source for information about his life. He authored two additional books, Enough Is Enough: Solving Florida’s Prison Crisis (1990), and, with Charles Colson, Why AmericaDoesn’t Work (1991). Obituaries are in the New York Times and Saint Petersburg Times (both 20 May 2004).

Caryn E. Neumann

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Eckerd, Jack Milton

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