Harbor. To this day, no one knows how or why the ship blew up, but that
didnâ€™t stop the United States from declaring war on Spain on April 25,
1898. Walgreen signed up with the Illinois National Guard the next day,
happily informing Mr. Valentine that he was â€śgiving up the drug business
for the army so he would have shorter hours and could sleep later in the
morning,â€ť Myrtle recalled.46 It didnâ€™t quite work out that way, of course.
Walgreen might have been a bit apathetic about the daily grind, but he
was a passionate patriot, â€śconvinced that a man should contribute to his
countryâ€™s well-being in every way he could,â€ť Myrtle wrote.47 When
Walgreenâ€™s company commander asked him to take a day trip across the is-
land of Cuba to map enemy positions, Walgreen hopped right to it. What
might have been a tedioius task turned into a breezy exercise when he
came across an officer in another unit who had already created detailed
maps of the Spanish forces and invited Walgreen to copy them.
So, while Teddy Roosevelt was leading the Rough Riders up San Juan
Hill, Walgreen calmly traced his new friendâ€™s maps and then spent the af-
ternoon swapping stories and smoking fresh Cuban cigarsâ€”all to make
26 americaâ€™s corner s tore
sure he killed enough time to make his final results seem plausible. When
Walgreen returned to his camp that evening, he was received by his com-
manding officer as a hero for producing such great maps. It would not be
the last time Walgreen would demonstrate the fine art of working smarter,
instead of harderâ€”one of his trademarks.
Thereâ€™s an old saw that young generals focus on combat strategy,
whereas older ones stress logistics. Walgreen was a whiz at logistics, from
an early age. The Army wisely recognized this and put Walgreen to use in
the dispensary of the Sibony Hospital. Every bed and hallway was filled
with dying menâ€”not from Spanish bullets but from microscopic enemies.
The three-month war claimed 5,462 American lives, but only 379 from
battle-related wounds. The rest died from malaria, typhoid, and yellow
fever, which ran rampant on the tropical island.
Due to doctorsâ€™ rudimentary knowledge of diseases at the time (they
were only beginning to suspect that mosquitoes were the source of yellow
fever), their practices frequently resulted in spreading diseases instead of
containing them. The medics themselves often came down with one of the
deadly bugs, including Walgreen, who contracted yellow fever and malaria
simultaneously. He fell into a coma, â€śso far gone,â€ť Myrtle recalled the un-
derstated Walgreen telling her, â€śthat the doctors held no hope for his liv-
ing through the night. He knew this was the verdict, but it seemed like a
fact about someone else.â€ť48
Paul Harvey, the legendary radio talk show storyteller, picked up the
narrative from there in one of his classic â€śThe Rest of the Storyâ€ť segments
in 1996. â€śCharlie was dying. . . . One of the physicians took Charlieâ€™s pulse,
shook his head. â€˜Good as dead,â€™ he said. Charlieâ€™s name was entered on the
casualty list. It would appear in the next dayâ€™s newspapers as yet another
â€śIt was just at that moment that Charlie felt free. It was as though he
were poised at a corner of the ceiling, looking down at his own apparently
lifeless body, looking down at the doctors and nurses, watching everything
they did, hearing everything they said. But then he was overcome by an in-
explicable awareness that if he did not return to that ravaged body, it
from humble beginnings 27
would be as though he had failed some sort of an examination. He heaved
a sigh. One of the doctors jumped, actually frightened, then called to his
colleagues, â€˜Heâ€™s still alive!â€™â€ť49
Myrtle recalled her future husband telling her that when he was in the
coma, â€śhe knew there were things he also wanted terribly to learn.
Whatever he glimpsed brought him back. . . . When he was able to talk,
he related every move that had been made in that long room while he
was supposedly unconscious. After that experience, he knew that immor-
tality was not just a theory and that the soul was not bound to the life of
Too much can be made of these experiences, but Walgreen was an ex-
traordinarily objective man, not given to exaggeration. There is no doubt
this experience made quite an impact on him, allowing him to discard his
fear of the future and imbuing him with the urgency to do something spe-
cial before his time was done.
Walgreen came home in November 1898, with an $8-a-month medical
pension, some lingering symptoms of his illness, and the strong desire to
downshift from Valentineâ€™s busy store. He walked three blocks south on
Cottage Grove to the Bowen Avenue intersection, through the doors of a
store on the first floor of the Barrett Hotelâ€”which had been built for the
Exposition in 1892â€”and asked the owner there, Isaac W. Blood, if he
needed an experienced worker. Good help was still hard to find, so
Valentine happily hired the 25-year-old veteran.
It wasnâ€™t much of a store, even by the standards of 1898: just 20 feet by
50 feet, much smaller than Valentineâ€™s. Mr. Bloodâ€™s store was dank and
dingy, lit by dangerous and shadowy gaslights, with narrow aisles and
cracked and dirty tile floors. â€śThe general atmosphere was uninviting,â€ť
Herman and Rick Kogan wrote, a sentence that presents a simple contrast
to the very effect Walgreen would always seek to achieve.51
28 americaâ€™s corner s tore
The products on the shelves were of uneven quality, and Walgreen him-
self could honestly not vouch for all of them. This was the store where
Walgreen worked, an almost perfect example of what pharmacy was like at
the time, for better or for worse. But it didnâ€™t have much to do with the
store Walgreen would create. That would be something altogether differ-
ent. What probably looked like a step backward at the time would prove
to be one of Walgreenâ€™s smartest career moves.
Bit by bit, Walgreen was getting the feel for what it would be like to ac-
tually own and operate a store, taking on larger responsibilities at each
stop. Before Isaac Blood went on vacation, he asked Walgreen to sell his
(Bloodâ€™s) second, smaller store if he could. When two men offered $1,250
for the shop, Walgreen knew Blood would accept the offer. But Walgreen
was a shrewder negotiator than his boss and told the men that the offer was
too low. They called Walgreenâ€™s bluff, asking him to wire his boss their
offer in the belief that Blood would happily sell at that price.
Walgreen believed they were right, so he outfoxed them again. He
wired Blood their offer but added a kicker the buyers never saw: â€śIf you
want to sell store for $1,250, wire [back that] you wonâ€™t take a cent less
than $1,500.â€ť Blood did as his underling instructed; and sure enough, the
buyers blinked first. Blood sold his unwanted second store for $1,500â€”20
percent more than what he had asked. Despite Walgreenâ€™s key role in the
transaction, Isaac Blood didnâ€™t give him a cent for his help.
By this point, Walgreen had seen enough pharmacists to know
what worked and what didnâ€™t. He now believed he could do it as well or
better than most, and he was certain heâ€™d much rather work for himself
than for someone else. But when he approached Mr. Blood about buying
the Cottage Grove store, Blood replied that he wouldnâ€™t take a cent less
than $4,000. Obviously, Blood had learned Walgreenâ€™s lessons on nego-
tiations too well, presenting Walgreen a seemingly impossible standard
As always, Walgreen saved his best efforts for any achievement that
might grant him more independence. The only way he could ever pay off
such a steep loan, he figured, would be to make the store more profitable
from humble beginnings 29
so heâ€™d be able to make his monthly payments from the proceeds once he
Once again, Walgreenâ€™s strategy worked too well. As Walgreenâ€™s extra
efforts began to produce extra revenue, Blood realized the store had more
potential than he had at first thought. In 1901, when Walgreenâ€™s tireless
efforts raised just enough capital to buy the store, Blood informed him the
price had just gone up to $6,000â€”50 percent more than it was when
Walgreen asked just two years earlier. Walgreen was floored, but he be-
came even more determined to see it through.
Paradoxically, Bloodâ€™s hard-to-get strategy might have been just the
thing to stir Walgreen to commit fully to becoming a drugstore owner. He
decided to drain his life savings; borrow an additional $2,000 from his fa-
ther, who had been doing well in the growing Dixon real estate market;
and signed a note for the remainder. The name â€śBlood-Walgreenâ€ť would
appear in the directory until he had paid off the loan.
Walgreen was in deepâ€”he knew he would not be getting out of debt
any time soon. But by buying the modest store at 4134 Cottage Grove
Avenue, he had something he valued more than anything, something heâ€™d
never had before: his independence. He had become his own boss and was
finally in business for himself. The neat, gold-lettered sign above the door
said it all: â€śC. R. Walgreen, R.Ph.â€ť
Thus, 2 years before the Wright Brothers launched their biplane at
Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, Henry Ford started his automobile company,
and the National League played the upstart American League in the first
Worldâ€™s Championship Series; 4 years before Albert Einstein formulated
the theory of relativity; 5 years before Willis Carrier invented air-
conditioning; 6 years before Leo Hendrik Baekeland invented plastic;
51 years before Sam Walton opened his first Wal-Mart; 54 years before
Ray Kroc opened his first McDonaldâ€™s; and 61 years before Sebastian S.
Kresge opened his first Kmartâ€”before all these events, Charles R.
Walgreen Sr. opened his first pharmacy.
No, Walgreenâ€™s first store didnâ€™t provide customers self-service, drive-
thru photo processing, or the Intercom computer system. He couldnâ€™t offer
30 americaâ€™s corner s tore
his two employees pension plans or profit sharingâ€”just long hours for an
honest wage and a pat on the back. And the store itself was small enough
to fit comfortably inside the cosmetics section of a modern Walgreens. But
that first store was definitely a Walgreens. And a contemporary customer
would have no difficulty recognizing or appreciating what Charles
Walgreen was offering, including immaculate floors and crystal clear glass
counters; straight, honest advice delivered in the customerâ€™s best interest;
and unequaled customer service, the kind that brings customers back,
again and againâ€”whether itâ€™s 1901 or 2004.
the most impor tant merger
It used to be said that behind every great man youâ€™ll find a great woman.
Myrtle Walgreen was in many ways a traditional wife, with little ego to
speak of; but no one who knew her would ever say she merely stood behind
her husband. Without her support, Walgreen himself would not have
dared to be so ambitious; and without her direct contributionsâ€”including
baking the pies and making the soups and sandwiches that opened the
food service division and fueled the chainâ€™s early expansionâ€”the
Walgreens chain never would have become the business empire it is today.
â€śThe first key to our success,â€ť said former CEO Dan Jorndt, â€śwas Mr.
Walgreen Sr. hitching up with Myrtle. Itâ€™s amazing what a team they were.
Everyone says he was successful; but really, itâ€™s that they were successful.
She was a Rock of Gibraltar and backed him up any way she could. He
never had to check to see if she was with him, and vice versa.â€ť52 Myrtle was
her husbandâ€™s equal, and no one knew this better than Walgreen himself.
It makes sense that the two got along so well from the start, given their
similar backgrounds. Both were raised on Illinois farms by no-nonsense
parents who nonetheless werenâ€™t afraid to roll the dice and very much val-
ued having fun. Myrtle wrote of her husband, â€śHe had a happy home, too,
just as I did.â€ť53
She was born Myrtle Norton on July 5, 1879, to a resilient mother and
from humble beginnings 31
a hard-working father. When her mother, Nellie, knew she was soon to
give birth to Myrtle, she gathered her belongings, plus some fresh flowers,
preserves, and handmade aprons for gifts, and traveled by horse-drawn
wagon to stay with her mother 40 miles away in Carbondaleâ€”then came
right home as soon as she could to tend to her husband and farm. â€śThat
was mid-America in the late 1870s,â€ť Myrtle wrote, â€śgood neighbors, hos-
pitality, but stand on your own feet.â€ť54
Her mother certainly embodied those traits and did so with flair.
â€śBaking was an art at which no one excelled my mother. . . . Things always
hummed when she was around.â€ť55
Although they were a quintessential farm family, the Nortons had more
than a little history and culture. Myrtleâ€™s great-great-grandfather Ichabod
Norton was killed by the British for making bullets for the Revolutionary
army. Her grandfather Kennedy fought nobly in the Civil War, and her
aunts included a professional artist, a piano teacher, and a University of
Chicago alum. This might not seem like anything out of the ordinary
today; but in the era of Stanley and Livingstone, the Boer War, and the as-
sassination of President Garfieldâ€”a half century before the â€śWaltonâ€ť
yearsâ€”such a refined background for a rural family was most uncommon.
Myrtleâ€™s favorite memories, however, were simple ones of family life. â€śIn
my childhood we had a good time at home,â€ť she wrote. Her father played
the violin and would serenade her mother with an eponymous tune, â€śMy
Gal Nell.â€ť â€śPapaâ€™s pride of mother was very forthright,â€ť she said in her
book. â€śWhat a wonderful atmosphere for a child to grow up in. . . . He al-
ways said that the day my mother brought home a daughter was the first
time it ever struck him that when a man had a wife, a son, a daughter, and
a farm there wasnâ€™t much left to wish for.â€ť56
It is not difficult when you read Myrtleâ€™s descriptions of the virtues her
parents stressed to see how those morals were passed on to her son Chuck
and to subsequent generations of Walgreens, providing the timeless basic
values on which the entire company is based to this day.
Her father, Myrtle wrote, â€śtook his responsibilities as trusts, and he had
a keen sense of honor about obligations. He made us feel that if we took
32 americaâ€™s corner s tore
on a job of any kind, it was our duty to do it in the best possible way, no
matter how tired of it we might become. It is still almost impossible for me
to leave any task unfinished, even though I may wish I had never begun.â€ť57