Elder Profile: Terry Appleby

New Year’s Eve will be a big night for Terry Appleby: His first grandchild is due, his eldest son is getting married, and he retires from over 35 years in the coop-grocery movement. During that time, he’s seen many changes, in the grocery business and in other systems.

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Terry grew up in Bordentown, NJ, as the oldest of nine. He shows pride in his hometown, volunteering that Bordentown had been home to Clara Barton, founder of the Red Cross, Thomas Paine, the Revolutionary patriot, and Francis Hopkinson, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Its location on a bend of the Delaware River, besides being beautiful, had made it a trading and shipping point.

Terry’s father inculcated in him a sense of responsibility for others in his family, and Terry held jobs from the time he was thirteen. He worked as a janitor in a local church, as a busboy, and through college as a waiter. His home, however, “was so crowded,” with eleven people, plus for a while his grandmother, squeezed into 4 bedrooms. “When I got the first opportunity to leave, I got out and stayed out,” he says. He went to LSU in Baton Rouge, pursuing an interest in Latin America, and studying Mexican politics and government, but, he adds meditatively, “Life took me in other directions.”

“When I was younger,” Terry adds, “I didn’t appreciate family as I do today. There was so much chaos and hustle and bustle. Just getting by took up all the time.” But now, he says, “We have a family that gets together a lot. Our parents instilled a strong feeling of family and group responsibility.”

In 1975, just before Thanksgiving, Terry’s father, only 49, died suddenly of what was later found to be a genetic syndrome leading to multiple organ failure. Terry hurried home from Baton Rouge, where he’d been working on graduate studies, to help out. There were still four children living at home. After things stabilized at home, he returned to LSU to finish his degree. He had a special incentive to sever the knots holding him to Louisiana, because he had renewed his acquaintance with Mary Ryan, whom he’d known casually when he was a senior in college in Philadelphia and she was a high school sophomore. There was something about her—and when she was in college in Olympia, WA, they wrote letters back and forth for a year. They married in 1979, and moved to Washington state, where Mary was doing graduate work in Comparative Literature. At one point, Mary studied in Germany for a year and they wrote every day. “There was no Skype or cell phones then,” says Terry, “and long distance calls were very expensive.”

Terry Appleby chipping in at the Hanover Co-op’s e-waste collection

At first, in Washington, Terry waited tables, but “one day I walked into a natural foods store, and they hired me.” The following year he moved to the Puget Consumer Coop, which had started as a buying group in 1953. By the late 1970s, PCC was growing fast, increasing sales and opening stores. “They were fond of democratic control,” recalls Terry, “and they didn’t like the term ‘manager.’ They preferred ‘coordinator.’”

Terry held various jobs in management at the store. In 1992, he saw the Hanover Coop’s ad for a general manager. Mary said, “You have to apply!” She had fond memories of the Upper Valley area from childhood camp on Lake Fairlee and outdoor education training near Peterborough during college, and by then, the family’s three children had been born. “We were schlepping the kids back and forth to see family on the east coast,” says Terry, with a rueful smile.

Terry got the job, of course, and has seen the Hanover Consumer Coop through many changes. Major projects have been the construction and opening of the Lebanon store in 1997, and the addition in 2000 of the commissary kitchen in Wilder, which makes prepared food for all the stores. An unusual challenge was the expansion into White River Junction, in 2010. The Upper Valley Food Coop, smaller than Hanover, but full of fervent members, worried that Hanover’s move into the old P&C supermarket would put them out of business. One of the things that made dialogue possible, says Terry, was that he and UVFC managers Kye Cochran and Sharon Mueller had worked together on scenario planning. “We had a cordial relationship and had built trust, so Kye could make a statement, saying ‘I know Terry Appleby.’ We figured out how to make it so both coops could survive and thrive. Hanover agreed to limit its product line—and tell its members why. We put signs on some of the buses around, ‘One great village—two great coops.’” Hanover’s board made it part of Terry’s job to stay in touch with UVFC (as he had in fact been doing).

Changes in the industry have only added to the challenge of running a grocery store. “When I came to Hanover in 1992,” says Terry, “Walmart had zero food sales. Now they sell more groceries than anyone. Amazon sells food. Twenty percent of cereal sales are over the internet. We want to help people think about the value of preparing and sharing meals. Still, you have to meet people where they are. Maybe Monday evening when they’re rushing around, it’s prepared food, and on Sunday a family dinner that everyone helps prepare.”

We’re all so trained to compete and to defend our turf that it’s hard to trust that sharing will work. “Cooperation is a compelling idea,” says Terry, “but it’s also very difficult. It takes so much work to organize cooperatives and to raise the money. It takes a long time, and it takes people with a lot of patience.” He is himself one of those people. He’s given his expertise—which also means he’s given hours of time—helping coops start up in South Royalton, VT and Littleton, NH. He’s been an effective force in developing affiliations among coops, to share and improve information and techniques. His equanimity and ready smile have smoothed the way for cooperation and progress.

Speaking the morning after the presidential election, Terry noted, “We need smart compassionate people to start thinking about the next economy. Trump tapped into the resentment and anxiety of whites; there are other large groups left behind. There’s something about our national character that in one way is very greedy, and wants to acquire things, always more. This has been true since colonial times. There’s also a compassionate piece that tempers it. That’s what we need to tap into.”


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