Family Recounts Matriarch’s Story, Who Welcomed Customers at Texas JCPenney Store Decades Ago

In the Texas town of Huntsville, Mary Rita Flores Gambrell has spent her life at church singing in the choir, her life at home raising nine children, and her life at work welcoming JCPenney customers – making a bit of history at the same time.

Her beliefs, anchored by the Golden Rule, made her a mentor for her children as well as a success at work where she was the first person of color to work at the Huntsville JCPenney store in the 1960s, her family shared. Proud granddaughter Lauren reached out to JCPenney to celebrate Mary after learning that the Huntsville store will be closing soon.

Gambrell, now 88, was a popular sales associate at JCPenney for nearly three decades – a job she loved so much that she never had another. JCPenney stores, after all, were originally named Golden Rule, and its founder was committed to the principle that Mary loves. As a people person, the job was a perfect fit for her.

“She knew that that was what she was graced to do,” said her daughter, Mary Gambrell Byrd, who shares the same first name as her mother.

A few years after joining JCPenney, Mary had her ninth and youngest child. She chose to name her newborn son James C., just like the company’s founder, James C. Penney. Ironically, J.C. Penney also had a wife named Mary as well as a daughter named Mary. With so many connections, it’s no coincidence that JCPenney was a fit, Mary’s family says.

Her customers became her good friends, and her children knew the connection was special. Byrd met many of her mother’s co-workers and recalls a manager saying, “ ‘Mary, now we don’t mind you going on vacation, but it seems the customers come in and ask for you and then leave when you’re not here,’ ” Byrd recalled. “ ‘Could you please ask them to come in and shop when you’re gone?’ ”

Now retired, Gambrell lives at home with her husband of nearly 73 years, Thomas. The two share 30 grandchildren, 50 great-grandchildren, and 16 great-great-grandchildren.

Today, health complications often prevent Mary from speaking. Yet there’s so much to celebrate, and her family could not let the Huntsville JCPenney close without noting Mary’s contribution. JCPenney commemorated Mary Gambrell’s service with a special recognition and memento.

“We share a special bond with JCPenney,” her granddaughter, Lauren Donnell, said. “During times such as these, when diversity and inclusion matter more than ever, it’s an honor knowing that JCP was on board years ago, pioneering it in a predominantly white city in Texas.”

Huntsville is full of memories for Mary Gambrell, as well as the many people who love her. “She’s made history,” said her daughter, Mary, “in so many ways.”