An Investment That Continues to Pay Me Back Every Day

One muggy August day in 1964, I found myself standing in the middle of Pine Street in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. I had just arrived to begin my freshman year at the University of Southern Mississippi, and I needed a job. In fact, if I didn't get a job I would be on the next Trailways bus back to Jackson.

I quickly noticed a little man well beyond his prime in the window of Belk's department store wrestling a mannequin into a dress. With all the trouble he was having, I thought that surely he needed an assistant. So I knocked on the window. He looked up, rather startled, and motioned for me to come into the store. Out from behind the window came the spry 4'10“ man, the one who would give me that first critical job that led to my career in retail design. He convinced the owner of Belk's to hire me as an intern for 75 cents an hour for one school quarter so that he could teach me the skills of a ”master window dresser.“ For the next three months, I came in every day to learn the art of hand-lettering signs, building and painting sets for the windows and creating visual stories that eventually caught the eye of the owner of Waldoff's on Pine, a competitor located directly across the street.

One day while waiting at the bus stop to go back to campus, Milton Waldoff approached me and asked me if I would come work for him. The timing was perfect, as the quarter was ending along with my job at Belk's. For the next four years, while attending the university, I had a parallel education in business, design and life working for Milton Waldoff. But this was no ordinary education. Milton expected the best from me and always pushed me beyond my limits. It turned out that Milton's mentor was Stanley Marcus of Neiman Marcus in Dallas. Neiman Marcus was the benchmark for excellence and Stanley was an inspiration to Milton, and me, as we noted every detail of his innovative approach to retailing. In those four years I gained a practical understanding of business and how design can be used in hundreds of ways to delight customers, improve their shopping experience and create lasting bonds.

Milton also gave me the opportunity to fail and finally succeed over time in fashion illustration, store design and product development, using a range of communication skills that complemented the graphic design and fine arts degree I was earning in college. Upon graduation my husband and I moved to Kansas City, and thanks to Milton Waldoff and the little man in the window, I was offered well-paying design positions at several top-tier department stores and corporations. So my dues were, in fact, an investment that continues to pay me back every day. Sure, I missed a lot of parties and college activities, but the learning experience and long hours were deeply satisfying and taught me to strive for excellence in business, design and life.

Ann Willoughby
Principal, Willoughby Design Group Kansas City, MO