1979 Crash Hurried Magic Mart's End

by Jack Whitsett  on Monday, Mar. 31, 2014 12:00 am  

A version of this article originally appeared in Arkansas Business on April 30, 2001. It is being republished as part of Arkansas Business' 30th anniversary issue. You can access the digital edition for free here.

It’s easy to forget now, but Wal-Mart wasn’t always the dominant discount retailer in the world. As late as 1979, the Bentonville chain arguably wasn’t even the dominant Arkansas discounter.

That effectively changed the morning of Friday, Dec. 21, 1979.

At 9:35 a.m., a Cessna 421 twin-engine plane carrying three vice presidents of Sterling Stores Inc. slammed into a fog-covered hill 4 miles southwest of Locust Grove, near Batesville. Aboard were Ben Johns, operations manager for the company’s Magic Mart discount stores; David N. McClanahan, Magic Mart general merchandising manager; Frank A. Bauer, divisional merchandise manager for the discount stores; and company pilot Jack Starr. All four died in the fiery crash.

The crash made the front page of Saturday’s Arkansas Gazette. The article, written by John Brummett, now a leading political columnist, reported that the executives were conducting a holiday check of stores and planned to return to Little Rock Friday afternoon for the company’s annual Christmas party.

A manager in one of the stores expecting a visit from the executives called the company’s headquarters on Forbing Road to deliver the news, only to be met with disbelief.

“They said, ‘It can’t be,’” he later recalled. “’They were in the big plane.’”

Magic Mart was a relatively new, expanding division of Sterling, an Arkansas institution started in 1921. Within four years, the entire company was gone, absorbed in a 1983 merger with Duckwall-Alco, a Kansas retail chain.

Though the loss of the three executives and their combined 99 years of experience wasn’t the sole factor in Sterling’s demise, the venerable business never recovered.

For Irene Forbes, who worked in the company’s advertising department at Sterling headquarters on Forbing Road in Little Rock, the crash’s business impact didn’t take long to sink in.

“All of us could tell afterward that the business wouldn’t make it,” Forbes, now an art director for Arkansas Business Publishing Group, said recently.

Retail by Default



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