Jean Ford, 95, Wanamakers executive

Jean Ford, 95, of Paoli, one of the first women executives in the former John Wanamaker department store chain, died Sunday, July 9, of dementia at Chester Valley Rehab and Nursing Center in Malvern, where she had lived for more than two years.

Camera icon Courtesy of the family

Miss Ford had a gift for interacting with people and parlayed it into a career in retail management long before it was common for women to do so, said Alexis L. Barbieri, whom Miss Ford treated as a niece though the two were unrelated by blood.

“Retailing is definitely a business for a ‘people person,’ ” said Barbieri. “She was good at it. She had a good life. We will miss her.”

Born in Williamstown, Mo., Miss Ford graduated from high school there. She came by herself to Philadelphia and lived with a family in Swarthmore. At the family’s suggestion, she applied for and was accepted into the John Wanamaker Cadet program for teens interested in retail careers.

In 1939, at age 18, Miss Ford was hired as a stock girl in the women’s apparel department at the flagship store in Center City. Over the next 42 years, she rose to assistant buyer at that store, group manager in the Wynnewood store, sales manager in the King of Prussia store, and vice president and manager of the Jenkintown store.

When Oxford Valley Mall opened in 1973, Miss Ford was sent to supervise the Wanamakers debut. Her last job with the chain was as manager of fashion and ready-to-wear at the store at the Court at King of Prussia. “It was a gorgeous store,” said her friend Cecilia Villafane-Tapia.

At that time, Miss Ford was only the second woman in the history of John Wanamaker to be named a vice president. The first was Marian Webb. “This was a huge achievement in the mid-1970s,” Barbieri said. Most management posts were held by men.

Miss Ford arrived at the zenith of regional department store chains’ popularity, when Wanamakers was a much-loved part of the region’s culture. But when national chains undercut regional prices by taking advantage of buying efficiencies, chains like Wanamakers could not compete.

The 15-store Wanamakers chain was sold in 1986 to Woodward & Lothrop, a Chicago-based retail empire. The business filed for bankruptcy in 1994, and on June 21, 1995, the Wanamakers stores were acquired by May Department Stores Co. Some became Hecht’s, others Macy’s. Wanamakers disappeared.

By 1981, Miss Ford had already retired from the chain to establish her own business in Paoli –  a casual and outdoor furniture and accessory store.  She later expanded the business to Wilmington. She ran the businesses until closing them in the early 1990s.

“She enjoyed working with her hands and dealing with the public, too,” her friend said.

Miss Ford was recruited to serve on the boards of the Hunt Manufacturing Co., a maker of office supplies in Philadelphia, and the Girl Scout Council at Valley Forge. She was active in the United Way of Southeastern Pennsylvania and the King of Prussia Chamber of Commerce.

She was a member of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Brandywine River Museum, and was a patron of the Philadelphia Orchestra. In her later years, she volunteered at Daylesford Abbey in Paoli, helping out with the annual art show.

A lover of the Jersey Shore, Miss Ford had a vacation home in Ocean City. She traveled to France, Italy, and South America, and was an early visitor to China once it reopened to the West.

Miss Ford made time to treat her adopted nieces and nephews to excursions. “When I was little, she would take me to Valley Green to feed the ducks” along the Wissahickon Creek, Barbieri said.

“She was very attuned to kids. They all gravitated to her,” said Villafane-Tapia.

Besides her niece and friend, she is survived by a sister, Gladys Loschke.

Miss Ford chose cremation. Burial is private.

Memorial contributions may be made to the Alzheimer’s Association of the Delaware Valley, 399 Market St., Suite 102, Philadelphia 19106, or via www.alz.org/delval/.

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