An Interview With...
Joseph C. LaGue
How did you become a manager in the grocery industry?
I began my career in the Supermarket Industry in June of 1943 as a box boy at the Pasadena branch of Ralphs Grocery Company at the corner of Lake & Walnut Streets. That was the beginning of a long and rewarding period in my life in the Grocery Business. Aside from a twenty two month enlistment in the U.S. Navy in 1946, Ralphs was to remain my only employer for over forty-six years.
During that time I rose through the ranks to clerk, cashier, "Key man", Assistant Manager and, eventually, to Store Manager. This process involved moving from store to store, at the direction of management, for different experiences in neighborhoods, demographics, management techniques, and personnel relationships, to name a few variables. I therefore worked in stores all over the greater Los Angeles area from time to time, most of which are no longer in existence by the way. Anaheim was the location of my first store as Manager in July, 1962.
As an employer, what were you looking for in the people who entered the work force at those different levels? What are the characteristics a good employee?
In those days most of the people entering the work force did so in the same manner as I had. Teenagers would find part-time work at the box boy stage (later called clerks helper) and, if they desired to remain in the industry, would begin advancing in positions. As a manager, I relied heavily on my own experiences to evaluate potential employees and to determine what areas I thought they would be best suited for, considering their own assets and personalities. Honesty, of course, was pre-eminent in the characteristics we sought to have in all of our people. The supermarket is highly vulnerable to dishonest employees as well as shoplifters, bad check artists, robbers and insurance abusers to name a few. Dependability was also high on the list since, in a business that depends on serving the public, adherence to scheduling is mandatory.
Other attributes depended on the position involved. I would not be looking for the same things in a night stock clerk, for example, as I would for a cashier who spent their entire day dealing on a one to one basis with the customers. Personalities could vary a great deal among our employees (members) depending on their particular job description. As time went on the personnel department (human resources) took over most of the screening and hiring of most applicants but the store manager (store director) usually had the final say.
When you were a little boy, what were some of your favorite activities and what did you dream you would grow up to be?
As a youngster I had a rather unusual childhood since I showed an ability to sing and entertain at a very young age. My mother enrolled me in a children's dancing/acting school called Meglin Kiddies that had branches around the Los Angeles area. By the time I had reached seven years of age I was appearing in motion pictures as well as on stage and radio. This was at the height of the "Great Depression" and many families hoped to have another "Shirley Temple" in their midst. My father was not among them however, and the decision was made to have me grow up in a more normal fashion. Needless to say this did not deter me from dreaming of "one day" becoming an entertainer. Throughout my school years, I was active in dramatic classes, band, choral groups and other areas where I could try to shine in one way or another. Unfortunately this did not include academics and I was for the most part an "average (C)" student.
I shall never forget those days though and I have fond memories of working with Al Jolson, Shirley Temple, Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell in films and being on a talent show with Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney.
How did your career goals change through the years?
As I progressed in life my goals changed several times. I was headed for engineering at one time but then the service came along and disrupted that plan. When I returned from the Navy, I took a battery of tests provided by the Veteran's Administration and decided to change to a teaching career. I had returned to work at Ralphs the day following my discharge however, and that as well as marriage, was to determine the course of the rest of my life. I went on to graduate from Pasadena Junior College (later known as Pasadena City College) but never did go on to a university. I took a hard look at the grocery business and decided it would be to my advantage to stay with it and try to work my way into management. I became active for a time in union activities with the Retail Clerks Union but eventually the opportunity for advancement with Ralphs came my way and I was off and running, and driving all over the city to work. I continued my involvement in entertainment, as a hobby, until my career no longer permitted me the free time needed to pursue it.
Did your interest in acting and drama influence your life in any way? How did you incorporate that passion into your life?
I was selected to be the manager of the brand new South Pasadena Ralphs store and since there had been some bad feelings in the city about Ralphs building where they did I was asked to do what I could to "pour oil on the troubled waters". Thus commenced the next phase of my life. To keep it short, by the time I was at the height of "pouring oil on the waters" I was serving as President of the Chamber of Commerce and President of the Kiwanis Club while sitting on the board of directors of the Foothill Area United Way. In all of these capacities, including Manager, I often thanked my higher power for my acting involvement background. I was able to play many parts demanding different techniques and with some success.
Little did I know that forces beyond my control were working toward the next step in my career. The Ralphs Family decided to sell the corporation to Federated Department Stores and things began to change within the operation of the only real employer I had ever known. It was only a couple of years after that I made the decision to step down from management and return to being a clerk once again. Gone were all the perks and responsibilities of management. I had to adjust to a different status among friends, co-workers and family. I am sorry to say that I did not handle this well.
What have been the most difficult obstacles for you to overcome in your life?
For most of my adult life I had been a regular user of alcoholic beverages and had overindulged on many occasions. I found solace in my disappointment over my changed status by letting alcohol become my way of forgetting what a failure I had become. I still managed to perform my duties at work, and did not miss work due to drinking, but it was becoming more and more influential in my daily life. In 1984 this all came to a head when I almost collapsed on the job and was taken to the emergency ward by ambulance. From there I went into a treatment facility for alcoholism and spent twenty eight days in a recovery program and then returned to work. The lesson I had to learn was that I was 56 years old and headed for a dismal fate if I did not straighten up. I found a recovery program and became active in my own sobriety. As of now I have been sober for over twenty years and was able to retire in 1989 with all of my pensions intact and the good wishes of my employers and co-workers.
I had managed to stop smoking in 1989, but in July of 2003, I was diagnosed with throat cancer and began seven weeks of daily radiation treatments and three sessions of chemo therapy spaced over the seven weeks. I was able to endure all of that quite well and suffered no serious side effects other than changes to my physical condition that I had to become used to (loss of weight, dry mouth due to lack of saliva, altered taste bud sensations and decreased stamina to name the most obvious changes). I was able to keep a consistently positive approach to all of this since my sobriety is founded on a "one day at a time" approach to life. I had also survived a life threatening auto accident in 1969 which resulted in two broken legs as well as other injuries. These things have added to my conviction that I am a "survivor" come what may.
What do you do today?
This brings me to one of the most enjoyable and fulfilling periods of my life: retirement!!!!!! As I prepared for the transition from a daily job to a life on my own, I looked for activities that would be challenging and productive. I had found out, after some minor surgery, that going to work at Ralphs on a daily basis was not absolutely the only way to live. I was told by the doctor to take some time off to recover and I found that easy and enjoyable to endure. One of the many things on my "to do list" was getting back into acting and I proceeded to audition for parts at a local Little Theater in Sierra Madre, California. I also joined the local branch of the YMCA to begin an exercise program to keep physically fit. As was my fashion, I was eventually to become so involved in the "Y" that I was manager of the board of directors of the branch and also sat on the Board of the Pasadena YMCA of which we were a part. In the acting phase of my retirement I was able to participate in over fifteen different productions at the Sierra Madre Playhouse over a fourteen year span. I also became connected to the Pasadena Shakespeare League productions of musicals for the purpose of raising money for local charitable organizations. I was fortunate to be given leading rolls in five of their productions so I was able to do what I loved to do, give entertainment to others and raise money for charity simultaneously. Talk about fulfillment!!!!
Do you have any advice for the students reading this interview?
Look not to the material things of life but to what good you can do for mankind. Our world today seems to frown on caring about others but it has been my experience that it is essential in order to have a good feeling about yourself. I learned to care about my fellow workers, my customers, my employees, my service club brothers, my friends in sobriety, and ultimately just plain people I meet everyday. A smile and a friendly hello can go a long way toward making you forget whatever is bothering you at the moment.
Do you have any inspirational quote that you would like to share with the readers of this interview?
I have never forgotten John F. Kennedy's quote which was likely based on the words of Khalil Gibran (1883-1931):
"Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country".
I firmly believe that "fellow man" can be substituted for "country" and it is still a worthy ideal. Today my volunteer work is limited to working with other alcoholics. My difficulties with my throat make acting or singing a bit too much to attempt at present but that is not to say I will not get back to it eventually. I have returned to close to 100% of my normal activities and my yard and gardens are returning to something I can be proud of. I even have completed some projects around the house that have been waiting for years.
Looking back over your life, is there anything you would have like to change?
This brings me to a point of reflection on the past: what might have been, could have been, or would have been. My childhood dreams of stardom were tempered by a knowledge of what a tough way that is to make a success of oneself: it can be a "dog eat dog" and "nice guys finish last" world. This made the dreams of some of my classmates seem foolish to me and I settled on making a good living in an industry that was more stable. Everybody has to eat and we had a strong union. Back then, that [job stability] was so much more important than in today's job market. Lack of a college education, on the other hand, was not nearly as important then as it has become presently. You must remember that my career began before shopping carts had been invented and saw the implementation of computerized technology before it ended. I often joked that I had worked up from box boy to manager, stepped down to clerk and retired before I was back to box boy again. That in a nutshell denotes the changes in the industry in that period.
The other area I have omitted is my personal life which has included three marriages and two divorces. I am fortunate to have four wonderful children from the first marriage and although I came close to losing their respect and affection over the years they are close and caring once again. I bring this up to illustrate how important family life is to this individual. I fell into the trap of letting success be my number one goal and let my family take a back seat during those early years. My biggest claim to success in my life is now the children and eight grandchildren.
If I had any feelings of how I would have liked to have had my life be different, I would be admitting it has not been satisfying. The events that affected my life were in turn gratifying or terrifying but they happened. I coped or failed to cope as they occurred. I didn't always handle things well, but I always tried to do my best.
Thanks for taking the time to read my mini biography; I hope it has been enlightening.
- 19 June 2004
10 July 2004
© 2004 - Imagiverse Educational Consortium