ANDY THORNAL, 1935 - 2014
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WINTER HAVEN - Andy Thornal, who transformed a sleepy army-navy store into an iconic central Florida retail establishment that bore his name, died in Winter Haven on February 5, 2014 after a protracted battle with cancer. He was 79.
Entrepreneurial from an early age, Mr. Thornal's first taste of capitalism came after he had successfully memorized 100 passages from the Bible, making him eligible for a free week at his church's summer camp near Winter Garden. On the day of his departure an uncle who distributed tobacco and candy presented him a box containing 100 pieces of Fleer bubblegum, a rare treat in World War II America, which sent most of its sweets to soldiers and sailors abroad.
Rather than selling the gum outright, the 10-year-old Andy rented it by the hour - a dime for the first 60 minutes worth of chewing, a nickel for second and subsequent hours. A bidding war ensued among his fellow campers for the few sticks he finally agreed to auction.
"When I went home I had five pieces of bubblegum and a box full of money," he recalled. "It whetted my appetite for more."
As a teenager living in Bradenton Beach he found profit pulling the cars of Yankee tourists out of the sand at high tide, using a World War II army surplus Jeep purchased with proceeds from his roadside fruit stand.
His offer was simple: for five dollars he would drive their car out; for $10 he would tow it to the dry roadbed. The majority of stranded motorists refused the first offer, thinking they could do it themselves, only to mire their vehicles axle deep in watery sand.
With the savings from his endeavors he attended the University of Florida in the early 1950s. Following college he worked as credit manager for General Tire & Rubber Co. in Orlando, where his employment of select biblical passages learned as a child occasionally helped persuade recalcitrant debtors to voluntarily discharge their obligations.
In 1961 he purchased the 600-square-foot Army-Navy Store in downtown Winter Haven, which had first opened its doors in 1945. The 26-year-old Thornal set out to refashion it into an upscale store that continuously changed to keep pace with evolving tastes and an increasingly affluent customer base.
The store he took possession of was a barebones affair with no air conditioning, no amenities, no employees and dust covering every surface. From the beginning he was hands-on - sewing duffle bags from sheets of canvas on an old sewing machine of his mother's, painting store counters in shades of turquoise and yellow, wrapping socks purchased in bulk with old brown paper and selling them in five-for-a-dollar bundles.
"Every time I could get a few extra bucks together I would add onto the property," he recalled, eventually buying the adjacent former ice house, bus station and a dive bar locally infamous for its dubious clientele. "Watch the nickels, and the dollars will take care of themselves," was a bit of financial sagacity he passed along to his employees.
To the mix of World War II canteens, machetes, jungle hammocks and entrenching tools, he soon added camping equipment, foot lockers, khakis and boots, slowly but steadily upgrading his merchandise to stand out from the crowd and attract more prosperous patrons.
At the same time he wanted to keep the business of laboring men who frequented the store to buy their steel toe boots and work clothes, by improving the offering of knives, leather gloves and other outdoor products. "I saw what would work and what wouldn't work and dwelled on what would work," he said.
Over the years the store's name progressed from Army-Navy to The Store to Andy Thornal Expedition Outfitter and finally to simply The Andy Thornal Company, reflecting its evolving personality. Almost imperceptibly to the casual customer, Thornal bent the store's inventory and accent ever upward.
"The changes came very, very gradually and the store became almost like a club," he said. "People want to do business with success. I wasn't a snob but I knew what beautiful things were and I wanted them around me." Thornal sought to link desirability, price, value and aesthetics into a singular buying experience, because that is precisely what appealed to him as a consummate and careful consumer.
His work ethic came directly from his family. With his father absent in the Navy during the war, young Thornal labored on his grandmother's small orange grove - weeding, hoeing and pruning while "knee deep in sandspurs and deer flies," he would recall.
When he complained that he needed a break his grandmother would explain, "Dear heart, a change of work is rest."
As a boss he could be demanding and mercurial -- a perfectionist who insisted his employees adopt his own exacting standards. Whether a management technique or a personality trait, such stringent ideals worked to the advantage of his customers, who returned on the strength of high quality merchandise, a concierge level of service and the woodsy but elegant ambience created by his supple, imaginative intelligence.
Andrew Wagner Thornal Jr. was born January 21, 1935 in Orlando, the only child of Libby and Wagner Thornal. His father was an insurance salesman, businessman and sometimes political operative; his mother a high energy homemaker who sewed, cooked, ran her own store and was the sole parental presence during young Andy's formative years.
Born into a political family - an uncle was chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court and other relatives were commissioners, councilmen and legislators - he eschewed politics for business and a very private personal life.
As a boy his maternal grandmother - a committed Baptist - hosted a succession of itinerate evangelists who passed through the home she shared with her daughter and young Thornal. Andy didn't care for most of them, until a young man came along who clearly had a different cast of mind and character.
His grandmother always cooked sumptuous southern meals and on this particular Sunday the fledgling preacher seemed to be holding back at table. "Now Billy," his grandmother instructed, "you eat another piece of that fried chicken, you hear? With all that preaching you're doing you will need the strength."
Andy watched the skinny young minister do exactly as he was told. Properly fortified, Billy Graham went on to considerable fame, success and influence, and left a lasting impression on the young boy.
A rather different personality turned up a few years later when Andy was in his late teens. Very early in a career that had not yet begun to peak, a young singer came to the Orlando area to give a concert. Mutual friends organized a lakeside picnic at which the young visitor watched Andy ski - and asked if he would teach him. Andy took the young man to the far side of the lake where he could flounder out of the public eye. In an hour or two, his new friend got the hang of it.
Andy told him, "Elvis, I'm going to drive the boat along the lakeshore and when we get to the picnic area, I want you to let go and drift ashore. People are going to love it." As Elvis Presley skied toward shallow water, his fellow picnickers gave him a hearty ovation.
An Eagle Scout who became a scoutmaster himself at 19, Andy "loved the scout lifestyle - I loved everything connected with the outdoors." He organized the new troop, choosing his scouts one by one - all just a few years younger than himself - and built Troop 209 in Winter Garden into a high achieving unit. "We almost always walked away with the prizes," he remembered fondly. Eagle Scouts always had an advantage when applying for a job with Andy Thornal.
He found his greatest satisfaction in nature - the beaches of east coast Florida, the mountains of North Carolina, Moosehead Lake in Maine, on his boat plying the Atlantic waters, as well as during extensive travel throughout the world.
Possessed of a restless, creative mind, he read widely - his favorite authors included Henry David Thoreau, Ayn Rand, Robert Louis Stevenson, Edgar Rice Borroughs, Robert Ruark, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and Martin and Osa Johnson - and absorbed ideas from a wide spectrum of sources, which he incorporated into his store, and into his life.
Mr. Thornal was a consummate letter writer, penning long missives to friends and family across the country and around the world in his distinctive elegant cursive, written in pencil on legal pads.
Trained as a bush pilot in Alaska, his yellow Piper Cub float plane was a familiar sight in the skies over Florida, Maine and points in between.
A visionary who turned his love of all things beautiful into a mercantile adventure over the course of more half a century, one of the greatest gifts he left his friends was his appreciation of nature's beauty, which brought him happiness, contentment and serenity. Business associates appreciated his analytical skills; friends, his capacity for wisdom and empathy.
While gracious and personable, Andy was an exceedingly private man wholly uninterested in fame but quite fond of the experiences, travel and pleasures afforded by his success. At the same time, he took equal satisfaction in planting a garden, building a chicken coop, nursing an injured squirrel or simply visiting with friends around a roaring fire.
During the final half year of his existence, while sick and undergoing treatment, his positive outlook was infectious - and he declared that he was enjoying "the best months of my life." He had long since made provision for continuance of his business.
Mr. Thornal never married and had no children, though he was a much beloved, avuncular presence in many young lives. He is survived by Curtis Lawrence, his companion of 15 years, numerous cousins and a cadre of close friends.
A private out-of-state memorial service is being planned.
Published in Ledger from Feb. 9 to Feb. 10, 2014