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A gruff figure, fondly recalled

South Boston News
Leggett / June 01, 2020

At the funeral for Thomas Coxe (T.C.) Leggett Sr. on Saturday, the program went according to the exact wishes of the late business titan and community benefactor — down to the hymns sung and passages of the Scripture read, which Mr. Leggett picked out himself, said former Leggett executive and longtime friend Ben Bridgers.

The conclusion of the service had a familiar ring to Leggett company alumni who long ago would be invited to lively parties at the boss’s home in South Boston. Time and again, the parties would end when Mr. Leggett called out to everyone, wished them well and told them it was time to go home.

“At the end [of Saturday’s funeral] the preacher said, ‘It’s time to go home’ and that’s what we did,” said Bridgers with a chuckle.

Tommy Leggett, as most knew him, died peacefully at his home on Friday at age 86, marking the end of a department store tradition that reached into five states with dozens of stores, setting fashion tastes in mid-size cities and rural towns. At its peak, there were more than 60 Leggett’s stores in Virginia, North Carolina, West Virginia, Maryland and Delaware, providing jobs for some 3,500 associates, as the company called its employees.

Mr. Leggett, along with his older brother Robert and other family members, ran the business like a family, say those who worked there. After the Leggett brand was taken over by Belk in 1997, “it was a different company,” said Bridgers.

“In South Boston we were a family. That doesn’t happen much today and it didn’t happen when Belk took over,” said Bridgers. “We were just employees. That was hard to get used to.”

Loud spoken and gruff in bearing, “he scared me to death,” said Marcia Mosby, whose late husband, Sandy, was a longtime Leggett marketing manager. When her husband was in a nursing home near the end of his days, Mosby saw the gentler side of the intimidating company leader: “He was so sweet to me.

“I guess that’s a real example of the bark being worse than the bite.”

There was one moment when Leggett let his guard down among the associates, recalled Mosby: It came during a Leggett Weekend company function in Virginia Beach. The staff had been carousing around the opulent Cavalier Hotel, riding up and down the elevators, “and Tommy was singing this stupid song at the top of his lungs, trying to teach it to us,” said Mosby.

“My recollection is not crystal clear” — parties oftentimes aren’t — but “I remember how dumb a song it was. Not 99 bottles of beer on the wall, but something repetitive like that. I know he must have been a fun person, but he was still scary to me.”

Leggett commanded attention to whatever endeavor he chose to put his name to: company, civic, and church. “He always seemed to have a lot of passion when he took on a project,” said Cathy Cole, who worked for Leggett Department Store in the 1970s and 1980s before moving into the family radio business, WHLF-WJLC in South Boston.

“He was an excellent fund raiser,” said Cole, touching on some of the causes that Leggett promoted — the local YMCA, where the exercise and workout room bears the Leggett family name, the Southern Virginia Higher Education Center, Halifax Regional Hospital, and others. “I can remember typing up speeches for him and I would be so motivated that I’d tell him, ‘Mr. Leggett, I would like to make a donation now.’”

Cole not only worked for the company, she knew Leggett well as a fellow congregant at Main Street United Methodist Church, where the department store company president (1986-1989) was a devout member and longtime Sunday school teacher. “He and [wife] Leona were very faithful. He was certainly there every Sunday.

“He was a big presence, a wonderful manager, a wonderful boss. He commanded respect and he got it,” Cole said.

Retired trucking company president Rick Harrell, who worked side-by-side with Leggett on many charitable endeavors in the county, said he got an early lesson on Leggett’s ability to persuade — and get things done.

“I found that Tommy really had a heart of gold. He cared about trying to help people and he was most generous with his and his family’s money. And his time,” said Harrell.

Leggett expected just as much in return, such as when he reached out to Harrell for a donation to Project PRIME, which funds scholarships for hospital personnel to further their training. At the time, Harrell said, he was a young businessman with a family to raise, and “I was trying to figure out the least amount of money I could give Mr. Leggett to get him out of my office.

“I gave him the money, and he responded, ‘This isn’t going to do.’ So I had to give him more,” said Harrell, laughing at the memory.

Harrell saw the late businessman’s fund raising prowess in action when he approached Leggett about becoming involved in the Mentor Role Model program, which Harrell started with Harvey Dillard and the late Gatha Richardson and Carter Hicks. Harrell approached Leggett for help and, “He said, ‘well, you get me some interviews and we’ll do this in a day.’ This was when we had more industry than we do now,” said Harrell.

Upon assembling local business and industry leaders, Leggett “would come in and he would kinda gruffly say, ‘Mr. Harrell has something he needs to tell you’ [about the mentoring program.] And I walked out with the money.

“We raised $80,000 in a day and a half.”

Another passion was the South Boston-Halifax County YMCA: “He felt really strongly the town ought to have an active Y,” said Harrell. “For years he was really the only person who took that to heart … he kept the YMCA going for years by himself.”

The fact Leggett was “loud spoken” in effect “hid his generosity, in spirit and financially,” said Harrell.

Mr. Leggett was part of the second generation of the family that built Leggett’s into a household brand name across Virginia, North Carolina and other states. In a 1988 profile in The Washington Post, Tommy Leggett said he knew at age 8 that he would go on to work at the family business, “when he began spending Saturday nights opening doors for customers at the Leggett store in South Boston,” the article explained.

“I just grew up in it. It was something I never thought anything else about. I liked it. So I kept on with it,” he told the newspaper.

The first store opened in Lynchburg, with Mr. Leggett’s father, Robert, and his uncles running the company. Over time, the Leggett brand became paired with Belk, a connection forged by marriage, with various offshoots around the Southeast — Leggett stores, Belk-Leggett stores, Tyler-Leggett stores, all instantly recognizable by the decorative font style shared by all the store logos. Leggett Stores launched in the era of the Great Depression, offering shoppers in small communities access to the latest fashions at affordable prices. “It was a rather inauspicious time to begin a new venture, but they made it work,” said Harrell.

At the South Boston downtown store, where the Leggett merchandising and marketing offices hummed overhead in the upper floors, Tommy Leggett was a familiar presence. He made it clear to his store managers how he wanted things to work — “If that name didn’t say Leggett any more, he would tell [a wayward manager] he could do it his way,” said Bridgers — but although he “was kind of rough on the outside, he was kindhearted on the inside.”

And even though he was a demanding, hands-on manager, Leggett did show patience at times. Bridgers said he saw that side of his boss when he came down from the top floor one day and heard an announcement come across the South Boston store’s public address system that he wanted to spiffy up.

“There was an old guy in the store — Buck on the PA system,” said Bridgers. “There was one time when Buck said, ‘Ladies, we have a deal on shoes in the basement today” — it was the bargain basement, a favorite of local shoppers — “and Mr. Leggett didn’t like the sound of that. So he told to call it the lower level instead.

“So Buck got on the phone and said, ‘In the lower level basement today, we have a deal on shoes.’

Bridgers did much traveling with the boss around to the company’s 60-plus stores. “It was fun to travel with him because you’d never know what he’d say or what would come out of his mouth.

“He was interesting to work for.”

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