Look at the picture.
It's quintessential Albert Boscov, the founder of Boscov's chain of department stores. Maybe I shouldn't write any more, because the photograph really tells the story -- of a man who knew how to lead by being human, who wasn't afraid to laugh and hug an employee double his height, who conducted business meetings at a table wedged next to the toilet on the back of a tour bus, who used a grocery basket as an attache case, who pulled a snack -- an unwrapped bagel -- from his suit pocket. He peeled off a post-it note and wiped away some lint before grabbing a bite.
When I first met Al Boscov in 1995, he was 66-years-old and one of his assistants told me that employees at the department store chain named after him had decided that Boscov, who had by then survived some serious heart surgery, was never going to die. And, if you met the man, you'd believe it, since it would seem that the sheer momentum generated by his energy would carry him beyond any date with death.
Apparently death didn't get the memo, since, on Feb. 10, Al Boscov violated his company's policy by passing away at the age of 87.
On the day he died, he posted a note on his Facebook page: "You're a wonderful group of people that have been part of my family for 87 years and I'm most proud of all of you. Love, Al.
We reporters meet a lot of people and do a lot of stories. In a 40-plus year career, a lot of it blends together. But, in August, 1996, I spent the day with Al Boscov and I remember so much of it so clearly. In a bit, I'm going to copy and paste my story from our Philadelphia Inquirer archives (this is pre-linking!). The story recounts one of the company's twice-a-month bus trips from Boscov's headquarters in Reading to the stores, spread out in several states. The goal was for the buyers, who selected the merchandise from vendors, to stay in touch with the people on the sales floor, so each could learn from the other what had sold, what had not and why.
One memory from that day didn't make it into the story, but stayed in my mind and was refreshed by April Saul's photo.
On that day, Boscov walked into one of the stores, and so many employees knew him. One of them, obviously a longtime employee, was a little bit elderly, not too snazzy in appearance, but had a friendly smile as she stood near the jewelry counter. He walked over to her, grabbed her hand, and they walked down the store aisle together, talking shop, their hands swinging, clearly delighted with one another. When was the last time that happened to you? When was the last time your boss showed you affection and delight?
Over the years, I interviewed Al Boscov several times, having first met him in a Manhattan bankruptcy court when I was covering the breakup of the John Wanamaker chain and he was trying to buy some of the stores. The suits and the other execs were clearly uptight, but not Al Boscov, who stood in the hallway, joking around, ever friendly.
In Reading, Al Boscov didn't have a fancy office in the department store chain's (way) less than elegant headquarters tucked in the back of one of the stores. Truthfully, his digs, though comfortable, were a mess, the working quarters of someone actually working, with meetings held at a conference table that had clearly seen better days.
I last interviewed Al Boscov in 2014 and I took my son, then 23, along to the interview, because I wanted him to meet an executive who didn't need a mission statement to have a mission and because I wanted him to see what real no-frills, kind-hearted leadership looked like. On that day, he explained that he'd be working on Thanksgiving because the store employees were working and that all of them would have an excellent catered meal, served during their breaks.
Reporters should never harbor the illusion that they are friends with the people they cover, even people they like, even people who appear to like them. That being said, I'm so sorry I'll never be able to interview Al Boscov again.
Here's the story I wrote back in 1996.