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Thursday, Apr. 28, 2016

Community leader dies

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Robert Clay 1920-2008

Area residents said goodbye to a good friend Jan. 15. At 87 years old, Robert Clay died.

Clay, who owned and operated Price Chopper in Hardy along with a host of other properties, began building his business empire in the 1940s after World War II.

Clay began his first grocery business with his father, R.N. Clay, in 1946, said Clay's nephew Bruce Dietsche. Clay's Market, as it was called, operated in two downtown shops on Hardy's Main Street before it planted its roots in the building which is now the home of First National Banking Company's Hardy branch in 1964.

The store eventually moved across the street where Price Chopper still operates today with the Clay family at the helm. Through the years Clay began other grocery stores in areas throughout the region bringing the grand total of stores to 22. All of the businesses were headquartered right in Hardy.

When Clay began his business, things weren't easy.

"Hardy used to be a no man's land when it came to suppliers and sales people," Dietsche said.

At that time milk and other staples were delivered to individual homes by dairy farmers and other local residents. Large suppliers from Little Rock, Memphis and Springfield delivered to towns in the region but Hardy was left out of every route, he said.

"Robert got busy. Eventually ... we started getting milk routes out of West Plains, bread routes out of Springfield and Batesville and other places," Dietsche said. "Robert eventually took on other locations and got sales people from other places. Things started growing."

Clay's daughter, Renee Clay-Circle, said her father's innovations in the grocery business did a great deal to modernize the grocery stores. Prior to his store opening, customers would go to the store counter and tell the clerk what they wanted while employees would fill the order. His innovations helped to change the grocery business into a self serve service.

Clay also created the franchise name of Price Chopper as it is used today to advertise the discount grocery stores. Although the family sold many of the businesses in 2000, they maintain ownership of all but two of the physical properties. Clay worked until his death.

"When you went into the grocery store, he was working there just like any other employee," Hardy Mayor Nina Thornton said. "He would always greet everyone he saw. He said if you treat them (customers) well, they will be back. He treated his customers like guests in his home."

Groceries wasn't all Clay knew. He was also in the feed business. He would provide feed to the many chicken house operators and laying hen owners in the area. Clay was also a farmer. He owned a rice farm in Wynne and cattle ranches at Saddle and Union in Fulton County.

Clay-Circle said her father's dedication to business had a great impact on her life.

"It made me the person I am today," she said. "I'm all business. You learn from your parents."

Business isn't all that Clay-Circle learned growing up.

"Family was important to him. He taught us you don't lie, and you don't steal," she said. "He and my mother both believed you treat others the way you want to be treated. No one is better than another person."

Clay was born in Bexar in Fulton County Nov. 8, 1920, to Robert Newton "R.N." Clay and Laura Ophelia (Sears) Clay. He graduated from Viola High School in 1939.

Clay met his wife, Kathleen Strain, while he attended college at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway studying business. His wife, who was from Conway, was in high school when they began dating.

Clay-Circle said her father was an excellent tennis player and could have gone professional; however, there was no money in tennis at that time.

Instead, when the war began, Clay enlisted in the Navy in 1942. He served as a Navy Sea Bee and participated in one of the first groups of volunteers selected from the Naval Construction Battalions in the spring of 1943 to lead the Naval Combat Demolition Units and the Underwater Demolition Team, the forefather to the U. S. Naval Seal program. Clay-Circle said her father never discussed his service in the war.

Clay and Strain married in 1943 in Tupelo, Miss., where the bride, an Army recruiter, was stationed at the time. The couple didn't see each other again until the war ended in 1945.

After the war, the couple made their home in Hardy to be near Clay's sister, Mozee, who was married to Preacher Roe. Eventually the remainder of the family, who lived in Fulton County, moved to Hardy. The Clays then had three children.

Business and family wasn't all Clay enjoyed. He also loved the outdoors.

"He loved to fish on Spring River, South Fork, Eleven Point and White River," Dietsche said. "If it involved hunting or fishing, whatever kind it was, he enjoyed it."

Dietsche said if the two of them were fishing it wasn't uncommon to look at Clay and see him sitting in a chair asleep with a fishing pole in each hand.

Eight days before his death, Clay was duck hunting, Clay-Circle said.

Danny Lusk got to know Clay through Lusk's father-in-law, A. L. Hudson. Clay, Hudson and other friends would travel to Canada each year to take advantage of the outdoor life there. Today, that trip still occurs each year although the number of the original group dwindles each year. At the same time many new travelers make the journey.

Those annual trips always brought interesting stories back to those who couldn't go, Lusk said.

"I think he enjoyed being outside more than he liked being inside," he said.

Lusk said Clay will definitely be missed. He said Clay was always a friendly person who was genuinely interested in what his friends and family were doing.

"Whatever he was doing, he liked to do it very well, whether it was hunting, farming or running his stores," Lusk said. "He didn't half way do anything. He would get the most out of everything."

Thornton agreed.

"We've lost one of the pillars of our community," she said. "He helped make the town what it is today. In my opinion, if it wasn't for Robert Clay's grocery store, Hardy probably wouldn't have fared so well during the years."

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