Lionel N. Humphreys Jr. — Family, Faith & Food City | Local News

Lionel N. Humphreys Jr. was a soft-spoken, understated kind of man. He’s gone from us now, but he left some big tracks behind him that won’t be erased.

Nelson Humphreys, as he was usually called, passed away Aug. 13.

If there are legends in the grocery business, Nelson Humphreys was one, especially in this region. Every time you drive past a Food City store, you’re seeing part of that legacy.

I wish I had known him better than I did. I interviewed him once during one of my earlier tenures at The Greeneville Sun, and saw him in church, in the store, or out in town, but he kept a relatively low public profile after he got out of the grocery business.

For that matter, he never seemed to turn the spotlight on himself even in his most active days with Food City. A brash Cas Walker type he was not. Soft-spoken and unpretentious, he worked quietly and efficiently. If you didn’t already know him when you saw him in a Food City store, you might suppose he was just another employee.

A team-builder, he surrounded himself with trustworthy and talented people, and let them do the things at which they were skilled. He let his crew members shine in their respective roles, knowing that would cast a broader gleam across the entire enterprise.

That, anyway, is how his approach appeared to me, looking in from the outside. And since Nelson Humphreys’ passing last week, I’ve had that perception reinforced by Bob Southerland, who worked for years with him, heading up promotions and advertising for Food City stores.

Bob is the man who, among many other contributions, designed the familiar stylized Food City logo we see on storefronts, billboards, race cars and more.

Early this week, Bob showed up with photographs and documents and information to help me commemorate his long-time boss and friend. He spoke eloquently of the man, and pointed out particular things he did that advanced the success of Food City.

Those included Nelson’s establishment of institutional advertising, the kind that promoted all the stores, not just individual ones.

Just about every multi-store region-wide operation uses that kind of approach now, but Nelson was among the first to implement it and demonstrate its effectiveness, Bob says.

But how did this whole grocery thing get started for Lionel N. Humphreys, Jr. in the first place? Bob told me it started with Nelson’s dad, Lionel N. Humphreys, Sr.

“He grew up in the business,” Bob said of Nelson.

For Nelson’s father, it also started with family. In 1918, a man named Sam Humphreys operated a storefront grocery store in Greeneville, called Humphreys. He hired his orphaned 16-year-old nephew, Lionel, to work for him. In that small move, a seed was planted that would flourish and grow through one century and into the next.

When Sam Humphreys died in 1925, his nephew took over operation of the Greeneville store, and in 1930, with the advent of the Depression, converted the store from being a credit-based store to being a “cash and carry” operation, giving the store a far greater chance to survive in a time when customers could not always pay their debts.

Eleven years later, Lionel Humphreys opened Greeneville’s first “supermarket.” The new Big Dollar Market was set up for self-service, with grocery carts, free parking and wide aisles. Customers could move among the shelves, load their carts and pay for their selections as they left. Modern grocery shopping had reached Greeneville in the year 1941.

Significantly, in that same year, Nelson Humphreys was born. And as the Big Dollar Market went forward under the corporate umbrella of Quality Foods, Inc., the senior Humphreys grew older, and in 1969, died.

Nelson was a young, forward-thinking veteran of the grocery business at that point. He’d attended the University of Tennessee from 1958 until 1961, and graduated Summa Cum Laude with a degree in Business Administration.

He held various positions within Quality Foods through the years, becoming president and CEO in 1971. He sold the company to K-VA-T Food Stores of Abingdon, Virginia. in the mid-1980s. K-VA-T’s Jack Smith owned a Piggly Wiggly franchise with 11 stores, and transitioned those into Food City stores.

Nelson worked for K-VA-T until 1990, when he semi-retired from the supermarket business. He later became president of Valley Realty Company, Inc. a property management firm, working with his son, Scott. Family was important to Nelson Humphreys.

Meanwhile, Food City stores rolled on under the K-VA-T Food Stores Inc. umbrella. The K is for Kentucky, the VA for Virginia and the T signifies Tennessee.

That little Sam Humphreys-owned store in 1918 Greeneville indirectly gave rise to something bigger than Sam Humphreys ever could have envisioned. It would not have gone the way it did if not for the innovative thinking of Lionel Nelson Humphreys, Jr.

That one time I interviewed Nelson, he surprised me some. For one thing, I found him to be a great storyteller with an unanticipated subtle sense of humor he hid beneath a rather serious personal manner, but unveiled at just the right point in whatever humorous anecdote he was telling.

He had me laughing several times during that interview.

I shared that memory with his daughter, Sherry, and she knew exactly what I was talking about. She described her father as a man who was “soft spoken, unassuming, but could sudden spark his dry wit and make you laugh because you weren’t expecting it.”

She told me he had “a brilliant, sharp mind,” but also was “humble and kind.”

Sherry said she had “heard through the years from people who came to work for the company who were very intimidated by his presence. But respect for him as a fair and honorable man won them over.”

There was more to the man than business or even family. I think Nelson would favor me ending this column with the following from his obituary this week.

It noted that Nelson had declared his “relationship with Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior, and the strong faith which it gave him throughout his business career, through several severe illnesses, surgeries and all of life’s mountains and valleys, was the greatest testimony of his life.”

Lionel Nelson Humphreys Jr. made his mark during his 80-year lifetime. We’re lessened by his abrupt absence but can be grateful for the time he was with us.

I doubt grocery stores are needed in Heaven, but if they are, Nelson perhaps is standing by Lionel Sr. and Sam and saying, “You know, that spot over there would work real well for …”

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