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Blog #7: Schwegmann’s Warrior Nature

John Schwegmann was a fightin’ man. Throughout his life, whenever faced with tough odds or powerful foes, he stood his ground, refusing to back down.

He fought his first battle as a boy, winning a psychological struggle against paralyzing feelings of inferiority. In his late teens, he dared to confront his employer over its debt-ridden management practices—in a speech delivered at the annual company banquet no less! It turned out he was right, as the company folded shortly thereafter.

As a young man, Schwegmann confronted dear old dad, heaping scorn on his father’s old-fogey approach to the grocery business. In a fit of inspired frustration, he opened his own store—the first supermarket in New Orleans! Before opening this store, however, he defiantly marched into the office of New Orleans’ mayor, Robert Maestri, and demanded an end to the Crescent City’s public market system—an institutional relic that prohibited the private sale of perishable foods. Amazingly enough, the mayor agreed with him and abolished the system.

In his forties, John Schwegmann assumed the role of general in command of his own consumer army. Backed by this force he waged all-out war against manufacturer price fixing. Over the course of the war he scored one clean victory against big liquor and a technical knockout over big drugs, before battling to a draw against big dairy.

At age 50, fueled by his passion for ideological combat, Schwegmann took a leap into politics. Here, marshaling his tremendous stores of drive and ambition, this uneducated outsider from the wrong side of the tracks scored impressive successes, coming to be elected not once, not twice, but four times: serving as representative and senator in the Louisiana legislature and as a state public service commissioner.

Yet Schwegmann’s political success came at a steep price, sapping the strength of the great retail genius while robbing him of focus. Things got worse as time went on. Over the late 1960s and early 1970s, even as his neglected stores cried out for upgrading, he suffered his two biggest political defeats: one in an ill-considered run for governor, the other in his starry-eyed opposition to the building of the Superdome.

What’s incredible about these final, futile battles is how relentlessly Schwegmann continued to fight. The futility of his ferocious resistance was almost tragic—as if the much-feared Braveheart of his retail past had given way to a semi-crazy Don Quixote engaged in single combat with the entirety of the notoriously corrupt Louisiana power structure.

Nevertheless, when a devastating stroke struck at age sixty-six, John’s warrior nature certainly came in handy. For he was able to fight back against extreme physical debilitation for nearly twenty more years, continuing to make the local social rounds and venturing off annually to his beloved Europe until the bitter end.

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