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A Legacy of Charm & Charity

by Anh-Minh Le

Mervin Morris. | Illustration by Olivia Wise.

The late Mervin Morris’ impact extended beyond the beloved Bay Area retailer he founded more than seven decades ago.

Practically anyone who grew up in San Lorenzo in the 1950s remembers going to the Mervyn’s there. It had the distinction of being the department store’s original location, and during the holidays it was the place to go in the East Bay town. Not only for the affordable clothing, jewelry and housewares that filled its aisles but to catch Santa arriving by helicopter — the next best thing to a reindeer-powered sleigh, perhaps.

Thousands would gather in the San Lorenzo Village Square parking lot for the occasion. In later years, the mode of transportation shifted to a shiny convertible. Among those waiting to meet St. Nick were Diane, Jeff, John and Jim Morris — whose father, Mervin, founded Mervyn’s in 1949.

“I still recall the twinkle in Dad’s eye as the helicopter descended,” recalls Diane, the eldest of the Morris brood. “In those days, helicopters — much less Santa coming all the way from the North Pole — were an uncommon phenomena. My hunch is that few in San Lorenzo had ever witnessed such a sight! It was sheer excitement. Dad had a natural ability to dazzle and delight. I know bolstering and enhancing his community was extremely important to him.”

In the 1950s, thousands gathered at the original Mervyn’s location in San Lorenzo to witness Santa arriving by helicopter. Mervin Morris was 29 years old when he opened the store in 1949. It initially occupied 2,800 square feet and was staffed by only two employees.| Photo courtesy of the Hayward Area Historical Society.

Indeed, when Mervin G. Morris passed away on August 24 at the age of 101, fond remembrances of the business he built poured in. On Facebook, former employees posted about their decades-long tenures with Mervyn’s and warm encounters with its affable owner — some calling it the best job they ever had. Customers reminisced about back-to-school shopping trips (corduroy bell-bottoms!), buying an engagement ring at the San Lorenzo outpost, getting their first credit card through the store and, of course, those highly anticipated visits from Santa.

The emporium that Morris opened when he was just 29 years old bore a variation on his name — thanks to an architect’s misspelling and suggestion that the “Y” made for better looking signage. Initially occupying 2,800 square feet, over the course of a dozen or so years, it expanded about 13 times, swelling to 85,000 square feet.

Mervyn’s was not Morris’ first foray into retail. Born in San Francisco, he grew up in the San Joaquin Valley town of Delano, where his parents, Fannie and Harry, had a dry goods store. His great-grandparents were also merchants, purveying clothes to gold miners in the mid-1800s. At age 12, Morris began working at his parents’ store. After high school, he attended the University of California, Berkeley. In a 2019 interview with Douglas Fairbairn at Mountain View’s Computer History Museum, Morris recounted how he wound up at Cal, where his older sister, Bertille, was a student: “I went up for a football game and had a grand time and said, ‘Gee, I think I’d like this myself,’” he shared. “And, so, I enrolled at UC Berkeley.”

“Dad had a natural ability to dazzle and delight. … Bolstering and enhancing his community was extremely important to him.” — Diane Morris

Toward the end of the first semester, amid finals, his father suffered a heart attack, which prompted Morris to return home. In 1941, he enlisted in the Army. He was primarily stationed in Arkansas, where he ran the post exchange. He ultimately was in charge of 18 retail stores and four restaurants, plus a couple of noncommissioned officers’ clubs. Morris was discharged from the Army with the rank of captain.

Following World War II, he rejoined the family business. But, as he told Fairbairn, “After I was away in the service for four years, Delano didn’t hold much charm. … I knew it was going to break my father’s heart, but I said, ‘I’ve got to get out of here,’ which I did.”

Morris decamped to the Bay Area, where he met Roslyn Grossman on a blind date. (Coincidentally, her parents had a store in Napa.) The young couple wed in San Francisco in 1950 and subsequently raised four kids in Atherton. At the time of Morris’ death, he and his oldest son, Jeff, still lived in the Peninsula suburb, around the corner from each other.

In addition to Jeff and his three siblings — all of whom are entrepreneurial, though none went into retail — Morris is survived by his younger sister, Jacqueline; 14 grandchildren; 10 great-grandchildren; and devoted friend Cynthia Hockey. “He was a great dad,” says Jeff. “He always made time for us, whatever was important to us. He did his best to be involved in our lives, as much as he could, given the demands of the job that he had.”

Morris sold Mervyn’s to Dayton Hudson in 1978, two years before Jeff’s first child, Kimberley Morris Rosen, was born. Yet there was a sense of pride whenever she set foot inside the department store. “It was such a huge part of [my grandpa’s] persona,” she explains. “The fact that it had his name made it even more personal. I was so proud of him and that, by lineage and by default, I was associated with this beloved brand and this beloved store.”

A portrait taken in the early 1970s, when the kids were all teenagers, depicts the Morrises in their original family home in Atherton. At the time, Mervin — who was known as Merv, while his wife, Roslyn, was Roz — was still running Mervyn’s. | Photo courtesy of Morris Family.

At the time of the Dayton Hudson acquisition, there were about 75 Mervyn’s locations, ringing up sales of $479.5 million. In its coverage, The New York Times characterized Mervyn’s as “a powerhouse — an innovative and much  emulated retailer.” Morris stayed on as CEO for another year. In 2004, it was purchased by an investment group that, four years later, announced it was shutting down the company and closing its remaining 149 stores.

Morris pursued myriad other interests. He owned and operated several automobile dealerships. (He was a car enthusiast: He once traveled to the Mercedes plant in Alabama to pick up a vehicle, driving it home with his best friend. In his 90s, he had a Porsche and a Tesla.) Together with Jeff, Morris formed a family investment firm in Menlo Park. They got into commercial real estate. “He was always busy doing something,” says Jeff of his father. “He loved being involved with lots of different activities — business activities, philanthropic activities.”

Morris and his wife, who passed away in 2016, helped fund the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Peninsula’s clubhouse in Redwood City, which is named in his honor. They were supporters of Peninsula Volunteers, the Menlo Park nonprofit that houses the Roslyn G. Morris Activity Center. Morris served as a trustee of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. He also held board positions with numerous companies and organizations, including Ross Stores, PG&E, Vans shoes, the Oakland Tribune, California Academy of Sciences, Palo Alto Medical Foundation and Stanford Hospital.

To keep active, Morris was an avid runner and golfer. When his children were young, he hit the track at Menlo-Atherton High School in the mornings and was back before they left for school. When the Morrises built a house in Atherton in the 1970s, it included a track. For years, says Jeff, his father played golf with the same foursome every weekend — at Sharon Heights Golf & Country Club in Menlo Park or The Vintage Club in Indian Wells. “When you get to be 101, you end up losing quite a few friends over the years,” Jeff notes. “But he still had a lot of friends who were longtime friends, and he kept making new ones.”

Even with all the holiday joy that Morris orchestrated with those long-ago aerial arrivals by Santa, it was a summer festivity that he particularly relished: His birthday fell on the Fourth of July. “He would have massive parties, and invite hundreds and hundreds of people,” says Kimberley. “He loved his birthday and he liked to celebrate with everybody he knew, from all facets of his life. One year, they had the Delano High marching band come. He was good friends with Carol Channing, so she would sometimes sing ‘Hello, Mervin!’ instead of ‘Hello, Dolly!’ — which was really special because that was his favorite musical and she was one of his favorite people.”

Morris possessed a gift, though, for making everyone feel like a favorite. “He had a unique way of connecting with people, and there were so many people who thought they were his best friend,” says Jeff. “We all learned a lot by how he led his life. More than his business acumen, people will remember him for his friendships and his giving to the community.”

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