Life Stories

He left a legacy of repairs, in more ways than one

CorrespondentJanuary 13, 2013 

  • Durward Franklin Gunnells Jr. Born: Oct. 1, 1922 in Albertville, Ala. 1941-1945: U.S. Army 1947: Marries Earline Jordan Gunnells 1948: Graduates from Auburn University 1948-1979: Worked for Sears, Roebuck & Co. 2011: Moves to Raleigh Died: Jan. 3, 2013 in Raleigh

Durward Gunnells Jr. had always been good at fixing things.

During World War II, he served in the Army as a mechanic of sorts, going behind enemy lines to repair or destroy allied tanks and aircraft.

Upon his return, after going to college on the GI Bill, he began what would be a 31-year career at Sears, Roebuck & Co., and once again found himself fixing things. During his tenure, he was sent to 14 different cities throughout the southeast, and his mending skills were put to use streamlining operations, using his firm but fair management style to whip stores into shape.

In that time, he helped repair more than just struggling sales floors. In the early 1960s, he advocated for the integration of the Sears located in downtown Greensboro. He later told his grandson, Sam Gunnells, that when he approached upper management, the response was hesitant, and he would be held accountable should things go wrong.

But they didn’t.

It was not until his children were grown that they began to realize their father had played a significant role in his community’s integration. Growing up, he never spoke about those deeds, and much of what they learned about him came from others sharing stories.

When Gunnells died earlier this month at 90, his son, Durward “Butch” Gunnells III of Raleigh, got a call from former state Sen. Charlie Dannelly with his condolences – and praise.

Dannelly met Gunnells through his mentor, the late Fred Alexander, a civil-rights activist who was the first African-American in the 20th century elected to Charlotte’s city council. He also knew Gunnells through Johnson C. Smith University, where he served on the board of trustees.

Dannelly knew of the work Gunnells did in the 1960s, when Sears was a major department store in Greensboro. This put Gunnells in a prominent role within the business community, and his decision to integrate the sales floor was significant, though it was never something he boasted about.

“Some people who do civil rights work want to expose the problem, so they seek publicity in what they are doing, but Durward did not do that,” Dannelly said. “He, like other people … just went about quietly doing the right things.”

Gunnells, an only child, was raised in small town Alabama, where he worked at a Coca-Cola plant to support his family while going to school. He would sometimes need to nap during class, having only had a few hours sleep the night before – something teachers during those Depression years understood and accepted.

“For a man who grew up in Alabama during the ’20s and ’30s, he was incredibly accepting of people, and realized that a person’s worth was all about whether they were willing to work hard and take responsibility for their own actions – not about what they looked like,” Sam Gunnells said.

He left an impression, long after Sears relocated him.

In the 1980s, his daughter, Glenda Watson, moved back to Charlotte from Denver for a time, and she called Sears to install a fence in her yard. She asked the man who came to take measurements, an African-American, if he knew her father, and even though it had been over a decade since Gunnells had worked in Charlotte, he remembered him.

Not only did he know who he was, he shared a story about the time Gunnells offered him his lake house to go cat fishing on the Catawba River. The man thought he was just being nice, so he declined.

That weekend, Gunnells caught dozens of catfish, gutted and cleaned them, then brought them to the store to give to the man. Later, when the man’s mother passed away, Gunnells attended her funeral and was the only white face in the church that day, he said.

This was a story she never would have heard from her father, though his example was enough to show his children what he valued.

He also valued charity. Watson can remember the time they were living in Charlottesville, Va., and he caught wind of an orphanage in need. Without being asked, he arranged for Sears to load a truck full of supplies, including appliances, and make a very special delivery.

Gunnells left his children a legacy of appreciating the value of hard work. He was a loving husband and father at home, but they knew he took his job seriously.

“He would get tough assignments,” his son said. “On more than one occasion we moved somewhere and he’d promise us it was the last move we’d make.”

But they would inevitably move somewhere else. Luckily, the Gunnells never had a hard time making new friends.

“I’ve never seen somebody work so hard,” his son said. He remembers thinking, “He’ll never make it to retirement. He’ll die in the saddle.”

But he retired at 58, spending most of those years living outside Boone, where he was able to golf and socialize. He and his wife eventually moved to Raleigh in 2011 to be closer to their son.

During those retirement years, Gunnells became more comfortable talking about his past and the war. Sam Gunnells, one of his four grandsons, spent time chatting with his grandfather while living near him in college at Appalachian State University.

“He generally only recounted these stories if asked about them,” Sam Gunnells said. “He was not Audie Murphy, but he did lead men in combat zones, did his duty, and – like many of that generation – simply took it for granted that he was supposed to do that. It was obvious he was proud of his service, but he was never boastful.”

His friends and family are happy to boast for him.

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