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Ron Loveless, a retired Wal-Mart executive who led Sam's Club through its first years of existence, has died, the companies announced Tuesday.

Loveless died Monday at the age of 73 after "a long battle with cancer," according to a memo from Wal-Mart CEO Doug McMillon and Sam's Club CEO Rosalind Brewer sent to Sam's Club employees.

"Due in great part to his innovative nature, Ron rose through the ranks as Walmart grew," McMillon and Brewer wrote, calling Loveless "one of the great leaders in our history."

Loveless described himself more modestly as "just an Arkansas boy with a high school education" in his 2011 memoir, "Walmart Inside Out," co-written with his long-time friend Anna Morter.

"I'm just a man who has lived and experienced the opportunity our free enterprise system affords each of us -- the chance to make something of ourselves and succeed in life and business through hard work and self-education," he wrote in a chapter passionately defending Wal-Mart against what he saw as excessive criticism from observers.

Ronald Leroy Loveless was born Oct. 6, 1943, in a bedroom of his grandmother's house in the small Benton County community Hiwasse, which was home to around 100 people at the time. His grandmother delivered him because the doctor from nearby Gravette didn't arrive in time, according to the memoir.

Loveless described his childhood as "blissfully happy" but deep in poverty. His single mother raised him and two sisters with government assistance and income from ironing clothing for a nickel apiece. She would memorize chicken truck schedules in hopes of catching birds that inadvertently fell the road, waking her children early in the morning to search for them.

"For a poor family like ours, these wayward birds served as some pretty good eating come Sunday dinner," Loveless wrote. He would later base the fictional "Loveless Economic Indicator," which poked fun at more serious economic forecasts that didn't anticipate Wal-Mart's success, on the experience -- good times would mean more chickens on highways because people could buy them in stores instead, he explained at one year's stockholders meeting.

Loveless had one of his first encounters with Sam Walton, Wal-Mart and Sam's Club's founder, after he and a friend shoplifted pocket knives from one of Walton's stores. His mother marched him down to the store to apologize, and a few days later Walton brought a dog to Loveless's house, telling his mother a dog and a boy could keep each other out of trouble, Loveless wrote.

Loveless played baseball throughout his youth in Bentonville, joining the city's youth league in its first year, said Gan Nunnally, the league's president. Loveless provided the league with financial support and contacts for other groups and civic leaders in the city, and he often recounted his early years in the sport, Nunnally said Tuesday.

"If you didn't know anything about baseball, you wanted to learn, just the way he could tell those stories," Nunnally said. "He's been such a big part of our community for so many years, and he'll be missed in Bentonville."

After four years with the Air Force, Loveless was working at a gas station in 1964 when Walton pulled up and asked him what his plans were, according to Loveless's memoir. Walton offered to cover college or provide Loveless a job, praising his work ethic.

Loveless chose the job, working as a store stocker at a Missouri location. He wrote he regretted not getting a college degree, but he eventually became an assistant manager and kept going up until he was in charge of the new Sam's Wholesale Club Division in the 1980s. He retired in 1986.

Loveless had two children with his first wife, Cindy, divorced and later married his wife, Robin. Details for his memorial weren't available Tuesday, according to the Wal-Mart and Sam's Club announcement.

NW News on 10/19/2016

Print Headline: Early Sam's Club leader dies

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