Leave it to the greeting-card king to sum up his worldview with a phrase both simple and meaningful.
“Taste is temporary, quality is permanent.”
Joyce C. Hall, the founder of Kansas City-based Hallmark Cards, Inc., was a rags-to-riches entrepreneur with a TV Emmy trophy to his credit.
He built one of the most admired companies on Earth by holding himself and his creative staff to providing “the very best” that Hallmark promised in commercials.
There were days when he wondered if it was too tall an order, Hall conceded in his memoirs: “We have thrown away many millions of cards that did not justify that commitment.”
So how would he view the world today, with greeting cards in crown-embossed envelopes giving way to quickie text messages?
How might Hall, who died in 1982, fare in a culture where nothing seems permanent, quality included?
“Those things he believed in were timeless and they remain timeless,” said Irvine O. Hockaday Jr., Hallmark’s president and chief executive from the mid-1980s to 2001. “They’re even more important now as our lives get crowded by all the immediate things that seem so fleeting, like texting.”
Trends in retail have been hard on Hallmark, too. Beset by online shopping and the cost of providing good worker benefits, the company in 2014 closed its upscale department store on the Plaza, Halls.
Hallmark chose to direct more attention and resources to dressing up a less popular retail venue at Crown Center, the pride of founder Hall and his son Donald. The two had shepherded the development of Crown Center to bring luster and life to a blighted bluff south of downtown.
When Crown Center was rising in the 1970s, five out of six Americans in a poll correctly identified Hallmark as being behind the slogan “When You Care Enough to Send the Very Best.” On television, critically acclaimed Hallmark Hall of Fame movies were piling up awards.
Civic leaders locally knew the city as a whole benefited from the company’s image and its high placement on a series of annual lists of the best U.S. employers.
The founder had reason to value life’s simplest pleasures.
Growing up in tiny David City, Neb., Joyce Hall’s earliest memories were of trying to sleep under a pile of covers during cold winters.
The frost on his bedroom window was so thick, “when I held a penny to it long enough it would freeze into the glass,” he recalled late in life.
His father, an itinerant preacher, abandoned the family when Joyce was 7.
The boy spent many hours hungry and thus developed an early love for eating. He vowed to work his tail off just to enjoy a baked potato in butter.
“Poverty for me was a tremendous spur,” Hall often said.
Beginning at age 9 he was selling products as diverse as perfume, cigars and fireworks. Magazine ads fascinated him. When he turned 18 he was ready to roar out of eastern Nebraska on a train, a one-way ticket in his pocket.
He arrived at Kansas City in January 1910. He shacked up at a YMCA. He kept under his bed two shoeboxes of illustrated postcards made in Europe and peddled them to stores around town.
Congress provided a timely shot in the arm to a fledgling greeting-card trade by establishing Mother’s Day in 1914. Demand further swelled during World War I, when families mailed them off to troops.
By this time Hall had persuaded two brothers, a sister and their mother to move to Kansas City. The Hall Brothers Co. and its 120 employees moved into a six-story building at 26th and Walnut streets, and for Joyce there was no going back.
About that first name. Hall despised it, thinking it was too girly.
His employees took to calling him Mr. J.C. (though no middle was actually given to baby Joyce).
Joyce Hall’s management style always was hands-on.
“I’ve been accused of running a one-man show — perhaps because I don’t particularly believe in running a business by meetings and committees,” he relayed in “When You Care Enough,” his 1979 autobiography.
“I’m a firm believer in the idea that there is a simpler and better way to do almost anything.”
As Hallmark’s prestige grew, so did its stable of artists willing to contribute: Walt Disney, Grandma Moses, Norman Rockwell, Winston Churchill and Dwight D. Eisenhower.
It was Hall who in 1951 commissioned Rockwell to paint the iconic “Kansas City Spirit,” a man clutching blueprints and rolling his sleeves following the disastrous July floods.
Same year, the company rolled out its first Hallmark Hall of Fame broadcasts. Joyce Hall and his wife Elizabeth reviewed every script before production began. (The Hall family still screens storylines for original movies on the Hallmark Channel.)
Said Joyce Hall’s grandson David Hall, now company president: “That’s a part of what he wanted to instill in those around him: telling great stories.”
The Hallmark airing of “Hamlet” in 1953 introduced the idea of a TV “special” pre-empting regular programming. It was the first time a Shakespeare play appeared on TV and high ratings confirmed for Joyce Hall his belief “that the American public was more interested in quality than some people in television realized.”
In 1961 he received the Emmys’ prestigious Trustees Award honoring the Hallmark Hall of Fame for “uplifting the standards of television.”
Charity giving has been practiced since the company’s founding.
Joyce Hall always donated at least 5 percent of annual profits to local benevolence. He and Elizabeth established the Hallmark Educational Foundation in 1943, when large foundations were few in Kansas City.
Renamed the Hall Family Foundation in 1993, it manages more than $700 million in capital today.
No matter the times, giving the very best should never go out of style, said David Hall.
“Helping people to connect,” he said. “That’s an enduring need...as true in 2016 as when my grandfather stepped off the train in 1910.”