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When Myrtle was four, the family moved to Chester in Southern
Illinois so her father could get a more stable job as a guard in the state pen-
itentiary, overlooking the Mississippi. “A big [jail] break was frustrated by
father™s men who refused to join in because he had been so square with
them,” she wrote late in her 84-year-long life. “The pride I felt when peo-
ple spoke about the way Papa™s men saved the day has stayed with me.”58
Unfortunately, it was also the prison that gave Myrtle her most painful
memory, too, that of her father dying of “lung fever,” brought on by the
fine dust from the quarries he guarded while the prisoners crushed rock. He
was only 38, his young daughter just 7.
Through Nellie™s strength and warmth, however, the family stuck to-
gether. The Nortons retained their sense of fun and adventure, too. “By
August, attendance [at the 1893 Chicago Exposition] was averaging two
hundred thousand a month,” Myrtle recalled. “Down in our part of the
state farmers were mortgaging their farms, teachers taking out their sav-
ings, merchants borrowing on their inventories, and some bankers even
foreclosing mortgages in order to have the money to ˜take the family to the
Fair.™ Mother certainly scraped the bottom of the barrel when she decided
that [my brother] Paul and I were to go to Chicago.”59
The trio rode on the Ferris Wheel, listened to John Phillip Sousa™s fa-
mous band and”most exciting of all”drank ice water. “In those days,”
Myrtle explained, “ice was not taken for granted. Mr. Drake, the founder
of the Drake Hotel, had honored Columbus by donating a fountain of ice
water kept cold by three tons of ice every day. . . . It was a great Fair! What
makes a fair great if not the mind stretching of the young and the fun that
outlasts the decades.”60
After Myrtle graduated from high school in 1898”the same year
Walgreen shipped off to Cuba”her brother, Paul, decided he wanted to go
to Chicago to become a registered pharmacist. He thought he would be
striking out on his own, but Nellie Norton would hear none of it.

from humble beginnings 33

“Mother agreed at once. Chicago it would be,” Myrtle wrote. “It was
years later I realized what an intrepid soul my Mother was. She had many
friends in Normal and Bloomington [Illinois]; her life was full, busy, and
happy. But she never once spoke of sending Paul to school. She was the
homemaker as well as the provider, and off we went.”61
Paul enrolled at the Chicago College of Pharmacy, while Myrtle
zoomed through her coursework at the Gregg Secretarial School, which
allowed students to go as fast as they wanted, once they satisfied the re-
quirements for each level. That™s all Myrtle needed to know. She woke up
at five each morning to work on the typewriter at home, walked to class,
then came home at night to work on her shorthand skills by having Paul
read the paper to her aloud. Her single-minded determination would
prove essential to Walgreens™ early success.
The working world, however, could be a dangerous place for a young
woman in Chicago. The environment could be so unsavory for them, in
fact, that an officer of the First National Bank felt compelled to run an
ad in the help-wanted section of the Chicago Tribune to warn female
stenographers of “our growing conviction that no thoroughly honorable
businessman who is this side of dotage ever advertises for a lady stenogra-
pher who is a blonde, is good-looking, is quite alone in the city, or will
transmit her photograph. All such advertisements upon their face bear the
marks of vulgarity, nor do we regard it safe for any lady to answer such un-
seemly utterances.”62
Miss Norton wasn™t in the workforce long before an unscrupulous boss
targeted her for such treatment. “Just let me kiss you,” he told her one day,
after he got her alone in his office. “What™s the matter with one kiss?”
Myrtle replied resolutely, “If you come an inch nearer, I™ll throw this chair
through that glass door,” and took her boss™s momentary pause as her op-
portunity to escape down the hall. Despite her courage under pressure,
when she found her brother Paul, who worked in the same building, she
was sobbing, too scared to speak.63 And that marked the end of her ste-
nography career.
About the same time, Myrtle made some changes in her love life, too.

34 america™s corner s tore

In high school she briefly dated a young man named Earl, the son of (sur-
prise) a pharmacist, of sorts. He was a “dashing fellow who played the
banjo,” she wrote, but “his father was known as the medicine man; that is,
he went from town to town selling patent medicine. His family had a big
fancy wagon which today would be called a trailer. When they let down
the back of the wagon and pulled open the curtains they presented the au-
dience with a ready-made stage.” It is not surprising that Myrtle™s upright
brother “did not like Earl. . . . Besides, Paul felt that the drugstore was the
place to buy medicines.”64
Earl didn™t last long, but she did have a “best beau” throughout high
school, a popular young man named George. “No party seemed to get
under way until George breezed in,” Myrtle wrote. Even after the Nortons
moved to Chicago, George kept coming around, all the way from Normal,
Illinois. Myrtle, Paul, and Nellie all liked George, but “I was a shade wor-
ried when I began to hear that he had been seen with girls who were not
the kind we always went around with. Finally certain rumors reached
Paul™s ears that George was stepping out a bit too fancily.”65
By June 1900, Myrtle had no job or boyfriend, but she seemed content.
She was always far more independent than needy in all her relationships,
but she was also open to possibilities. “I can™t remember a dull day,” she
wrote. “New interests were always popping up and everything I did I went
into with my whole heart.”66
When Paul, who had become a sales rep for a surgical supply house,
went on a Lake Michigan junket paid for by the pharmaceutical compa-
nies, she happily went along. The companies gave the guests plenty of pro-
motional trinkets and trash to wear on the boat ride, and as Myrtle said,
with disarming directness, “I weighed 165 pounds with 45-inch hips and a
generous 38-inch bust; so I must have made one of the larger displays.”
Apparently at least one young pharmacist noticed. “That was the day I met
Charles Walgreen,” she said. “Later he told me that whenever he heard me
laugh [that day] he felt unaccountably like laughing, too.”67
But Walgreen let his chance slip away. It would be months before

from humble beginnings 35

Myrtle™s brother Paul asked her to come along with him to Mr. Blood™s
drugstore. Myrtle recalled:

While Paul was talking business with Mr. Walgreen, I was walking
around the store looking at everything on the counters, and I came
upon a box of bath tablets. I had no more idea of buying those bath
tablets than I had of buying hair tonic; but just to make conversa-
tion, I picked up one of the packages and said, “Mr. Walgreen, are
these bath tablets any good?” He walked over to me and said, “Miss
Norton, I couldn™t recommend them personally because I have never
used them, but I sell a great many.”
When we went out of the store I said to Paul, “Well, that certainly
is an honest druggist. You would have thought he™d say, ˜Certainly
they™re good!™ thinking I was going to buy some, but he didn™t.” That
made a real impression on me. I kept thinking how forthright that
young Mr. Walgreen was.68

Yet Walgreen again let the opportunity slip away. Months later, Paul
and Myrtle were planning an August fishing trip to Wisconsin with a
dozen or so friends when they happened to visit Mr. Blood™s store again.
While browsing the selections, Myrtle overheard her brother ask
Walgreen, “Do you like to fish?”
“I admit I was hoping this friendly young druggist was going to answer
˜Yes,™ although I never thought of Paul™s suggesting he come on the trip,”
Myrtle wrote. Walgreen replied, “Sure I like to fish,” but failed to take the
bait once more. Paul tried to invite him yet again a few weeks later, but
again, no definite answer. Finally Mrytle returned for some stamps and
told him she had almost completed her fishing outfit, trying to gauge his
interest”but maddeningly, no response. Whether Walgreen was dense or
merely modest is hard to say, but the communication gap between the
Nortons and the young druggist was downright comical to observe.
On a warm Friday night, on the eve of the long-awaited trip, Paul and

36 america™s corner s tore

Myrtle Norton visited Mr. Blood™s drugstore one last time to spell out their
invitation in no uncertain terms. “Well, Walgreen,” Paul offered with a
sigh, almost resigned to his friend™s reluctance”or obliviousness”“we
leave tomorrow night; and if you decide you want to go, just be down at
the Northwestern Station at ten-thirty.”69
“Mr. Walgreen seemed to be turning the idea over as if he had just taken
it in that he could join our camping trip,” Myrtle wrote, amused. Sure
enough, at the appointed hour, Walgreen walked down the platform at the
Northwestern Station”the same spot where he had first arrived
in Chicago seven years earlier”ready to go on another life-changing
Two weeks in the Wisconsin woods put their relationship on a new
course. As luck would have it, they were playing partners during the card
games on the train ride up north. “My!” Myrtle wrote. “We found it easy to
laugh that night.”70
After a few days in the Great White North, Walgreen noticed that
everyone was calling Myrtle “Sis,” so he asked if he could, too. She agreed,
and replied, “I™ll call you Sonny.”
“In those days the use of first names marked an advanced friendship,”
she said. “Women didn™t even call their husbands by their first names
in public.”
“When we were alone he told me about his family and some of the seri-
ous times in his life. We eased our way into a lifelong friendship. From the
first we were completely comfortable together.”71
There was, however, the little matter of Walgreen™s engagement to a
woman back in Dixon. But near the end of the Wisconsin sojourn, he con-
fessed to Myrtle that he was trying to gather the courage to break it off.
The connection between Walgreen and his girlfriend wasn™t strong, some-
thing even Walgreen™s fianc©e acknowledged when she complained that
his letters to her “were like icicles.” After meeting Miss Norton, Walgreen
concluded he had to break up with his fianc©e in person, telling Myrtle be-
fore the trip ended, “You may not think much of me [for breaking off my

from humble beginnings 37

engagement], but I™m going to try to win you if I™m free. I™ve fallen in love
with you. You™re simply the girl I™ve been looking for.”72
Soon enough, the deed was done, and Walgreen was a free man. Now,
to win Miss Norton™s hand, Walgreen took an aggressive approach that his
first fianc©e would not have recognized. Every evening, after a 16-hour day
working on his feet, Walgreen stopped by the Nortons™ apartment and
then walked a few more blocks to his place to write the object of his desire
a handwritten letter, which he had “special delivered” to Miss Norton the
next day. These letters, it is safe to assume, did not remind Miss Norton of
icicles or of any other frozen creation. She was as smitten with him as he
was with her. The romance moved swiftly, culminating in their wedding
on August 18, 1902”just a year after their camping trip.
Not only did the date mark the beginning of a very happy home life, but
it would also prove to be the most important decision anyone ever made
in the history of the Walgreen Company.

diving in”together

The 1902 wedding of Charles Sr. and Myrtle secured the Walgreens™ fam-
ily life forever. By all accounts, their marriage was a happy one, made
stronger by the birth of Charles Jr. (or “Chuck,” as he was soon known) in
1906 and Ruth, with bright red hair, in 1910. Despite working long, ardu-
ous hours, Charles Sr. would come home and get on all fours to thrill his
young children, barking like a dog and bucking like a bronco to make
them laugh.
Walgreen™s happy family life didn™t answer the questions in his profes-
sional life, however. Although he had just taken out a heavy loan to
become a co-owner of Blood™s store about the same time he met Myrtle
and was only a year and change into paying off the loan when the two
were married, he still appeared far from committed to a lifelong career in

38 america™s corner s tore

Walgreen™s restlessness manifested itself the day after their wedding in
Seattle, where Myrtle had family. Walgreen spent their “honeymoon
week” scouting the area for potential store sights, settling on one appealing
corner”a corner the company would revisit decades later”before finally
deciding the time wasn™t right.
The Walgreens returned to Chicago, determined to pay off the store
loan as soon as possible. Through their frugality, the Walgreens were able
to put half his salary toward the loan payment each month. The young
couple allotted themselves only $25 per month for rent. The best place
Myrtle could find, however, was a tiny apartment a half mile west of the
store for $27.50; so they had to scrimp elsewhere, with Myrtle doing all
their washing, ironing, and cooking. In the early years of their marriage,
Myrtle was a truly traditional wife, rarely asking about her husband™s busi-
ness, especially when he came home bone-tired after a 16-hour day.
Though Walgreen was committed to following through on his first
store, he still hadn™t dedicated himself to the pharmacy business itself.
While toiling on Cottage Grove, he dabbled in a Los Angeles wrapping
paper company, an Idaho mining outfit, and a Chicago grain commodities
firm. He also tried opening new stores with friends in Dixon, Illinois, and
Hot Springs, Arkansas; but these expansions proved premature. Instead of
strengthening Walgreen™s new-born company, these side interests proved
a distraction from his core store; so he decided to sell off his holdings to the
partners involved.
Since he had tried just about everything to avoid what seemed in-
evitable, Charles Walgreen Sr. finally concluded that his calling was to be
a pharmacist, based in Chicago. Once he committed to this idea, things
changed dramatically.
Walgreen didn™t waste any time refurbishing Mr. Blood™s dark and dusty
old store. He replaced the cracked tile floor, converted the dangerous
gaslights to electric, widened the aisles, and added a new front awning that
said, “Drugs and Surgical Dressings.” He was more vigilant about the qual-
ity, variety, and value of the products he displayed on his shelves. And he


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