Putting it into perspective
For half of a century, John Justin '41 put his own special shine on the boot and brick industries, and helped turn a cattle-drive town into a world-class
Cowtown. Now he retires, but not before telling us a few of his favorite stories.
By Nancy Bartosek
Ask John Justin '41 what has driven him for most of a century and you don't get an answer, you get a story.
I was on a board of another company and we were having a big meeting in Florida, said the 82-year-old Justin one April afternoon in his Justin Industries office, just west of downtown Fort Worth. A hip operation had him hobbling, but with talk of business came a tale or two about cowboys, about maidens, about building a legend.
One night we went out to dinner, and the wife of one of the other men -- she was a fine woman -- came around and put her hand on my shoulder and said, "Mr. Justin, what makes you so successful?" Well, I was sort of under the influence of Jack Daniels, and without even thinking I just blurted out, "Well, I just work my you-know-what off" to this very dignified lady. Everybody thought it was the funniest thing. . . but I have just always done that.
Royal Purple pair. Justin and wife Jane Chilton Justin '43, former model, author and city patron (above in their Fort Worth home) met a number of years after their college days at the insistence of Jane's brother-in-law, John Collier. "There was a big football game and he called me and asked me to go to the TCU football game with him and his wife and her sister, but I already had a date. The night before, there was a big ball, and this other girl and I were at Rivercrest Country Club and as we started up the stairs, I looked up and here was this vision, this beautiful girl at the top of the stairs starting down. I didn't know who she was, but when she got to me, she put her hand on my arm and said, 'I'm so sorry you can't go to the football game with us tomorrow.' (I found out later) it was Jane. After that, of course, I kinda felt obligated to meet this girl." Justin and Jane, a widow with two children, married six weeks later.
Indeed, since earning nickels selling cold drinks to the boot makers in his father's factory, success seems to be a byproduct of the boot and brick magnate's hard work.
Back in Nocona, before 1925, there was only one railroad from Gainesville to Wichita Falls. Well, my grandfather had got an order from [silent film star] Tom Mix for some boots. [Mix] wrote to say he would be coming through Nocona on the train, to hold the boots there for him. I was about 6 at the time when my dad called mother and said, "Bring John Jr. down here, Tom Mix is coming in on the train." So the train came through, and Tom Mix asked them to stop it while he got his boots fitted. My mother rushed me down there, and I stood there holding Tom Mix's hand. That was a big, big deal. About as big as you could get back then, for me.
Such experiences became the "sole" of his desire to retain his Wild West heritage, and the company that went with it.
I remember we had this big family dinner to celebrate a particularly good year, and my grandmother Justin (a real pioneer woman), she didn't speak well in public, and so she did what she could to say some nice things. Finally she turned over to look at me -- and I was just sitting there -- and said, "John Jr., what do you want to do when you grow up?" Without thinking I got up and said, "I wanna run this company." I was about 8 or 9 years old then, so I guess it was in me, it was born in me.
Still, Justin claims he was just trying to put a jingle in his pocket when he and another Fort Worth legend got together.
Charlie Tandy ('40) was at TCU the same time I was, and he was kind of in the same situation. So we got together and we'd talk. What could we do to make some money? So we decided to make some women's belts. We got some leather and had a die made, and we'd hit it with a mallet to cut out loops we'd put together for belts, then with a burning needle we'd burn a brand on it. We began selling them around town and did pretty well with them.
We'd stay up all night making belts, then we'd try to go to school during the daytime. I'd hit that old mallet until my arm would almost fall off, then I'd say, "Here, Charlie," and we'd change places and I'd burn for a while. We did that in my parent's garage... kept us out of a lot of mischief probably."
Justin was determined to buy into the family business, despite his father's insistence that he stay out.
"My dad and his two brothers thought anyone who wore cowboy boots was about half crazy anyway," Justin said, laughing.
He disagreed. His belt business was doing well, and eventually his uncle realized they needed help and sold him a majority share.
When I took over, they were building a shoe that was well-made but didn't have any style, didn't have what I would call snap. So they were having to sell them really cheap. My dad thought the future was in shoes. I knew he was going to be very against this, but I got a crew of boys one Saturday morning about 5 o'clock -- my dad always got to the office about 6:30 or 7 -- and I started taking up that shoe equipment. Well, my dad came in and oh, he was mad, I mean furious, and I didn't blame him. I finally got him calmed down and said, "Boys, go ahead and do what I told you to do," and I took him to the office and explained to him we were losing a dollar a pair, and we couldn't afford that for very long. After that, we started depending on boots.
And boots scooted under his ambitious leadership. Justin added silver-tipped flair to an otherwise pedestrian business.
One of the craziest things I did then was find a glove cowhide and a tannery that would make it for me in red, and it was an ugly red, and green and yellow and blue. I started making boots out of that and taking them out to the dealers. I had to convince the dealers to sell them. They were a real comfortable boot and a real workable boot. That kinda got the thing going.
And the thing kept going, to the point that it made Justin millions, allowing him resources to make a difference in other ways. His bronze likeness now stands guard at the entrance of the John Justin Arena at the Will Rogers Complex; the Stock Show "Chairman" who never lived on a ranch or owned a horse sits astride his favorite mount (a friend's) for his selfless efforts to keep the cow in
Cowtown. Justin chuckles and waves off the accolades and says his commitment comes from a lifelong romance with the Western lifestyle.
The house that Justin built. The $7. 5 million Justin Athletics Center, to break ground when all funding has been secured, will house the football program and an athletic learning center, as well as athletics administration offices.
Another beneficiary of Justin's goodwill is TCU. A member of the Board of Trustees since 1987, he and wife Jane Chilton Justin '43 were honored with the Royal Purple Award in 1987 for their lifelong support of alma mater, especially in the athletic department. Their most recent contribution, the $3.5 million naming gift for the soon-to-break-ground John Justin Athletics Center, will house educational facilities for student athletes, among other priorities.
I remember TCU in the old days when we had Ki Aldrich ('39) and all the great players like Davey O'Brien ('39) and Raymond "Rags" Matthews ('28), and it stood high in the ranks in the nation. I used to usher out there when I was in the ROTC cadets in junior high, and I knew a lot of those football players. I'd like to see it back where it was. I'm from the days of Dutch Meyer and I'd just like to see it come back.
Success will always remain relative in his Justin's eyes, for challenges and victories still lie ahead, but for what he's done, it's clear he has few regrets.
I feel good every night when I go to bed 'cause I've done some things. I've given a lot of people a lot of jobs, given them a lot of money.
We need more of that in this world because there's so much to do and so many ways to do it.