By: Ali Elizabeth Turner
Since 1930, when George Jenkins started the first Publix store in Winter Haven, Florida, shoppers and employees alike have been treated like family. The commitment to exemplary customer satisfaction has attracted employees who love making Publix the place “where shopping is a pleasure,” and no one in our area has fulfilled Mr. Jenkins’ dream more completely than Athens’ own Thad Guthrie, son of Phillip and Lorie Guthrie. Thad is on the customer service team at the East Side Junction Publix store, located here in Athens at 22031 US Highway 72. Recently, he was awarded the “Mr. George” gold coin – one of their most prestigious awards. A “raving fan customer” by the name of Mrs. Mary Johnston called the corporate headquarters to see what Publix could do to honor this young man.
Miss Mary spent her 40-year career as a senior guidance counselor for several schools in North Alabama. For decades she helped students get scholarships and appointments to places like the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis. She is still involved in the lives of young people and, though long since retired, is currently mentoring two in Huntsville and one in Athens. She knows a gem when she sees one, and in her book, Thad more than earned that distinction. Here is the story of how they first became acquainted through Publix, and now have become fast friends.
Back in March when we were in the early chapters of the COVID Capers, Mary was in need of distilled water and did not want to venture out to shop for it. You’ll recall that the level of uncertainty regarding the disease was high, and as Mary demographically is amongst the most at-risk of our population, she was understandably cautious. She called the customer service desk at Publix and Thad answered. Mary had planned on speaking with someone in management, but when she shared her need for some distilled water, and wondered if Publix had some kind of delivery service, Thad responded, “Well, ma’am, Publix does not have that service as a policy, but may I bring it to you? What else do you need?” He agreed to bring Mary the water and a few more groceries on her list to her home while he was on his lunch hour. As far as Thad was concerned, taking care of Mary was a simple fulfillment of James 1:27, which says, “Pure religion and undefiled is this, to visit the orphans and widows in their distress…”
That first day, Mary thanked Thad profusely, and over time, grocery delivery became a regular part of Thad’s routine. “I paid him well, and he became my personal shopper. He is still delivering groceries to my home,” she said. Mary wanted to make sure that Thad was given the recognition he was due. She contacted the Publix headquarters in Florida, and with the authority gained from decades of advocating for students, she “spoke truth to power” to the Publix “powers that be.” She regaled them with her experience with Thad and documented for them in detail his integrity, respectfulness, dependability, kindness, and work ethic. They were thrilled to hear about a young person, a college student in addition to being an employee, demonstrating such willingness to go the extra mile. You’ll remember that March was a time when customers were sometimes cranky and panicky, the supply chain had been partially disrupted, toilet paper was scarce, and employees were working long hours to restock everything the moment it came in. Publix is legendary for helping the community in the aftermath of hurricanes and tornadoes, and they shined brightly in the midst of the strange storm in which we found ourselves.
At Mary Johnston’s behest, Publix came up with a plan to bring someone from area management to the Athens store to surprise Thad and award him the “Mr. George” coin. Thad told me, “They sent Jeff Jeup, the district manager for our area in North Alabama, to give me the coin, and it was like having the CEO come from Florida to do it.”
“How did they pull it off?” I asked Thad. “First they called the management team to the breakroom,” he said. “Then they paged me over the loud speaker. I had no idea what they wanted,” Thad said. He went back to the surprise party which included the ceremony, the giving of the coin and a gift card, and of course, a Publix cake. For her part, Mary Johnston told me, “I was really, really proud. Here was the younger generation helping the older generation.” And we at Athens Now say, “Congratulations, Thad, and thank you for the TLC you have shown to our ‘seasoned treasures’ and all of us!”
By: Ali Elizabeth Turner