By Lisa Shrewsberry
“I won’t be retired, I’ll just be no longer in the furniture, electronics and appliances retail business,” explains John L. Eye, who was as busy this week as he’s ever been — closing out on the decades-old momentum behind John Eye Big Sandy Superstore.
Following an agreement to sell to Grand Home Furnishings the retail business he, his father and sisters built on the family name, Eye is still waiting for the calm that marks the end of the storm.
A final sale of inventory has for the last few weeks marked this truly blowout moment, the exchange of a business and of a piece of town history, one that effectively served the public for 80 years.
Each time they sat on a sofa, got cold drinks from the refrigerator, checked on dinner heating in the oven or caught the latest news from the television, it was hard for residents not to recall with ease the name John Eye. As the absolute businessman remembers his beginnings and looks forward to a new life chapter, it is apparent he prefers, to what others may have supposed about him, his personal estimation of self, as “just a humble, country boy.”
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Born and raised in Beckley, John L. Eye was the namesake of father John W. Eye, also the company’s namesake, who began when the only airwaves broadcast were AM, and family entertainment was embarking on its fully wired voyage.
“Dad worked for Lilly Music Co. as a delivery helper,” explains Eye. The business dealt some in pianos but also in radios and phonographs, which his father became an expert in repairing.
When Lilly Music succumbed to the devastation of the Depression, customers filed toward John W.’s home — the one they’d come to depend on for keeping their family’s main source of entertainment viable.
“It became annoying to my mom,” said Eye, the baby with five sisters at home and he the only boy among them. Mom Gertrude was busy keeping a family while her husband was running a new business out of the family garage. That was enough reason for John W. to rent a freestanding store in what began as the John W. Eye Co.
By the time the evolving business also began retailing appliance products to convenience a growing Beckley area, Eye was a teenager, recalling the seemingly endless flow of washers and dryers, refrigerators and stoves he was charged to unbox.
His next-to-oldest sister Gladys finished her studies in accounting at Beckley College to become the financial officer of the company’s operations. She was “a second mother,” as Eye describes her, the glue keeping the necessary components together.
“Families were tighter knit then. I helped out all through my high school days. I had time and she had need,” Eye remarks.
Sisters Hallie, Ina and Ruth also contributed their time in one capacity or another to help the young business continue in a positive direction.
For his faithfulness to the family’s pursuits, Eye recalls being given permission to use the family automobile, which he’d take to find the nearest banks of the New River for fishing, a passion that continues still today for the outdoorsman.
Eye fondly recalls Scouting until he attained his Eagle Scout designation. As a Scout, he also remembers hiking and camping at Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico.
“I went off fishing by myself and caught enough trout to feed the whole troop — 20 little native brook trout.”
He would relive his experiences out West in his adult life, on multiple occasions for fishing and hunting excursions.
The Beckley that Eye always returned to was then, as he describes it, “unbelievably different — it was just kind of a small town community” — a touchstone he left only for Scouting trips and to finish college at WVU after graduating from WWHS in 1955. He worked a summer in the coal mines to purchase an old Ford station wagon, wearied by a year of hitchhiking home on weekends and between semesters from Morgantown. So ensued a long list of taxiing local community pillars, themselves hitching rides with Eye to return home from college, names he remembers and people he still stays in touch with today … like Doug Epling and Joe Long (and his wife Julia), Ben Williams, Paul Hutchison and many others.
“It was either pouring the rain or some incidental situation. I drove so many kids home.”
Eye returned from college after four years with a degree in forestry and wildlife management. As a college graduate, he found an immediate opening related to his early career path as a county forester.
Still, the family called on young Eye to help with the company, which by then consisted of his father, sisters Gladys and Hallie and additional employees.
Enter television. The now ubiquitous connector of humanity, television was a game-changer to the John W. Eye Co.
As the need for television repair exceeded the need for radio repair, John W. Eye supplied the necessary tubes and antennae to access the relatively limited broadcasting of television’s early days (WOAY Channel 4, WVVA Channel 6 and Channels 8 and 10 from Charleston and Huntington, respectively). Eye learned the greater Beckley area along with their Zeniths and RCAs the hard way — by scaling nearly every other roof in southern West Virginia.
“People look at me and think, ‘Now, he’s a distinguished businessman.’ Why, I put up antennae on lots of houses, from the elite to coal camps and everywhere else … in Sophia, Lester, McAlpine, Lillybrook, Rhodell … I had probably been on half the rooftops in Beckley at one time.”
It wasn’t until a distributor talked Eye into learning about retail management that he left forestry, selling his interest in a sideline timber business and fully immersing the family retail business into home furnishings in 1971. A retail management program Eye had completed, taught by Whirlpool Appliances in Benton Harbor, Mich., inspired him to realize the possibilities.
“There in Michigan blossomed the reality of what in my mind could be achieved in retail,” Eye explains. “It wasn’t strictly about the money — it was about buying, pricing, financial entities, sales people, commission and advertising. All the factors conglomerate to make a retail operation work. I became fascinated with it. I could see what we were doing and what our opportunity was …”
Once his dad had aged to a point where he could no longer handle the business, Eye and his sisters partnered up, promising to “take care of him and Mother for the rest of their lives.” The siblings partnered up until John W. Eye Co. merged with Big Sandy Superstore in 1995.
Surprisingly, when Eye is asked what made him so successful, he credits not timing, or any innate ability of his own. He credits what he calls his family’s “drug problem.”
“Mommy drug us to church on Sundays and Wednesday nights whether we wanted to go or not.” His life has been blessed by faith, he says. “I had loving parents who took us to church and I have had that as my core all throughout my life. It still is.”
Eye recalls helping out a young, tall, slim curly-haired boy named Larry Cochran, who needed a job before he could gain approval to marry a girl named Norma. Today, Eye maintains a friendship with the man he has come to know as friend and pastor of Lighthouse Baptist Church, Larry Cochran. The Cochrans and Eye and his wife, Minda, went on a mission trip to Africa together in 2007.
“We were basically helping to establish small community churches outside the major town,” Eye explains. He and Minda are continuing supporters of the local church’s plans to build a boy’s home, while the couple attends their home church, Open Door Church at Shady Spring, regularly.
Traveling and his and Minda’s continued involvement in faith-based initiatives will occupy the days Eye plans to still keep busy.
As he reflects on the favor of God, his own love of the land and catching small mouth bass, muskie or channel cat from the New River, Eye is interrupted with calls … from an accountant … from others insistent on pulling him back into business. At well after 1 p.m., he hasn’t yet stopped for lunch. It’s clear “retirement” isn’t a cut-and-run deal.
Understanding the need to get back to the business of retiring, he relies on Psalm 91 — his life Scripture — to summarize where he’s been and where he believes he is right now.
“Because he loves me,” says the Lord, “I will rescue him; I will protect him, for he acknowledges My name. He will call on Me, and I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble, I will deliver him and honor him. With long life I will satisfy him and show him My salvation.”
“I ain’t nothin’ but a wayfarer,” he translates. “But by the grace of God, He sought to bless the family with abundance.”