Elizabeth Cook: Too many Ketner stories to tell

Published 12:15 am Sunday, June 5, 2016

Donnie and Ronnie Marsh should write a book.

The twin brothers went to work for Food Lion as teenagers. Ronnie went first, at 15, to so he could buy a car. That went so well that when Donnie was 16, he asked Wilson Smith if he could work for Food Lion, too.

Growing up at Ellis Crossroads, the Marshes graduated from North Rowan High School and did not see college in their future. Yet Food Lion gave them the opportunity to make a decent wage with a generous profit-sharing plan — probably more generous than expected when it was set up. The Marshes were able to retire at 45.

Where can a person do that today? What company on the New York Stock Exchange puts customers first, employees second, stockholders third and management last?

That’s one of the things wrong with the working world today, in my opinion. Employees come last with big corporations, who exude a take-it-or-leave-it attitude. They can find someone else to fill your job.

That’s another column.

Food Lion President Ralph Ketner could tell the Marshes apart as long as each of the twins was in the store he managed — Ronnie on Mahaley Avenue and Donnie on Jake Alexander Boulevard. But when they all got together at company meetings, Ketner got them confused. To discipline himself, Ketner promised to give each of them a dollar every time he got their names wrong. 

Years later Ketner joked that the Marshes made millions off those dollar bills. At a gathering of Food Lion originals several months ago, the Marshes switched name tags as they were leaving, and Ketner mistook Donnie for Ronnie one more time. When they let him in on the joke, Ketner said that was it. He was not giving them another dollar.

There are as many stories about Ketner as there are items on Food Lion shelves, maybe more. Putting together a story last week about his life, I came across more than I could use, yet felt there were countless more to tell.

Fred Stanback and Ketner, both among Salisbury’s top philanthropists, went way back together.

They met through Salisbury Rotary Club, Stanback says, and were also members of an investment club that met every month or so to talk about stocks. Fred says they didn’t invest as a group, but shared information to use on their own.

Members included Bill Stanback, Dr. Joe Corpening, Ed Taylor, R.O. Everett.

That was about the time Ketner, Wilson Smith and Brown Ketner started Food Town, Fred says, and investment club members bought stock. “It turned out to be quite good,” Stanback says in great understatement. An investment of $1,000 at the beginning was soon worth millions.

Stanback recalls Ketner’s story about a failing geometry grade that threatened his graduation from Boyden High School. Ketner’s mathematical skills were legendary, but geometry was another story.

Ketner told the first-year teacher that he’d had a good math grade the year before under Julia Groves, the school principal. If the teacher would just change the F to a passing grade, Ketner reasoned, he could avoid making the principal think he was not a good teacher.

Ketner passed. 

“That’s the kind of thinking that served him well later in life,” Stanback says. Ketner was always an innovator, always finding a new angle. And he was a hard worker, “but he loved it,” Stanback says. 

Food Lion’s economic impact has been tremendous. Stanback says the 150 or so original investors made millions on the stock and, thanks to Ketner, helped the community through charitable giving “more than he personally was able to do.”

I interviewed Ketner in 1994 after publication of his autobiography, which came out at a time when distance had grown between him and Food Lion management.

Ketner was retired and said he had no problem stepping away from Food Lion. “I never looked upon it as mine,” he said. “I looked upon it as the shareholders’.”

But Ketner questioned the company’s decision to leapfrog other states to open stores in Texas. And he had been openly critical of the company’s response to a critical report on ABC’s PrimeTime.

Ketner probably sent management plenty of letters and notes, as he was prone to do. But the day we talked, he was more inclined to philosophize than criticize.

“You live your life in the future, not the past,” Ketner said. “Obviously, I still wish them well. All I can say is, ‘Go, man, go.’”

Ditto to you, Mr. Ketner. Go, man, go.

Elizabeth Cook is editor of the Salisbury Post.