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Sunday, Aug. 16, 1998

Lichtenstein's workers meet for reunion

Staff Writer

   Ralph Martin clearly remembers the kindness he encountered as an employee at Lichtenstein's department store more than 40 years ago.
   The department store closed in 1977, but Martin and about 75 other former employees gathered for their 15th annual ``family'' reunion at China West Restaurant on Saturday.
   In the summer of 1954, the day before Martin was about to leave on a family trip to Indiana with his three small children, the co-owner of the store, Albert Lichtenstein, called him into his office.
   ``Our family car was a 1952 Plymouth Coupe,'' said Martin, who worked for the store for 27 years. ``Mr. Lichtenstein said, `Ralph, why don't you take my car, and I'll use yours until you get back.' His car was a Cadillac Fleetwood sedan.
   ``It bowled me over,'' Martin said, his eyes filling with tears. ``I turned him down because I felt my folks in Indiana would think I was showing off.''
   That kindness is what most of the store's employees remember. The downtown department store at 401 N. Chaparral St. was a Corpus Christi landmark for more than 100 years before it closed in 1977.
   The shop was run by the Lichtenstein family until 1972, when it was purchased by Manhattan Industries, said Aaron Goldstein, historian for the Lichtenstein family.
   Goldstein said the company's loyalty to its customers and employees is what made the store special.
   ``The founders and the family knew how to treat customers,'' Goldstein said, recalling his visits to the store with his grandmother.
   ``They told their employees that anyone who walked in the front door, whether she had a raggedy purse or a nice one, whether she had two or three dollars in it or a thousand dollars, was to be treated with the same respect.''
   The former employees who met Saturday recalled the good times about their jobs.
   During Elizabeth Arden's ``Lawrence of Arabia'' line promotion, called ``Sheik,'' all of the cosmetics sales women wore harem costumes, said Evelyn Hazlewood, who worked for the company for about 40 years, starting when she was in high school.
   ``We had elegant costumes,'' Hazlewood said. ``People came from everywhere to see us. But one little lady (employee) in her 60s came running through there and her pants fell off,'' she added, laughing.
   Claudia Gouchie, who worked at the store for 17 years, chuckled as she remembered how one employee was trapped under a rack of clothes after customers stormed the store at the opening of a sale.
   Gouchie is part of the six-member committee that keeps track of surviving employees. There are still about 450 on her mailing list, she said.
   Any one of the Lichtenstein team will agree that things aren't what they used to be. Mention a modern department store and many scoff.
   ``There's no service today,'' Hazlewood said. ``Our girls went to New York and Dallas to learn how to sell these cosmetics lines -- the store paid their way.''
   Martin, a former personnel director for the store, said people just don't care as much anymore.
   ``It's an attitude of indifference among the salespeople,'' he said, blaming the trend on large department store chains originating on the East Coast.
   ``I worked so hard at hiring good people that other employees would know and like,'' Martin said. ``They built an esprit de corps among the people.''
   The old Lichtenstein's building on Chaparral is currently under renovation by Joe Adame and Associates. Goldstein said he hopes it can eventually be reopened to help revitalize the downtown area.

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