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Cal Turner's grass-roots approach to literacy.

J. L. Turner's father, at the age of 33, had been killed at a wrestling match in Macon County, Tennessee. For little J. L., a third grader at the time, this marked the end of his formal education: he had to quit school to farm and support his mother and younger sisters and brothers.

But J. L. Turner was not to stay behind a plow for the rest of his working days. Although he was never able to go back to school, in 1939, J. L. and his son, Cal, on a shoestring budget and with a lot of common sense, founded J. L. Turner and Son Wholesalers. In 1956, Cal conceived the original dollar-store concept and opened the first Dollar General Store in Springfield, Kentucky. Today one of the oldest and most respected retail chains in America, Dollar General Stores number 1,400 in 23 states and produce annual sales of more than $600 million.

Happily, that success did not go to J. L. Turner's head. Rather, it went to his heart. He remembered well the embarrassment and the inconvenience of functional illiteracy. When Cal was in the fourth grade, he had more education than his dad. When J. L. bought another store, he took Cal with him to "pencil," or total, the store's inventory. (Cal went on to attend college.)

Realizing that what J. L. had accomplished at that time would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, in today's world for anyone with only a third-grade education, his heirs began rolling up the sympathetic sleeves of the Dollar General Stores to join in the fight against illiteracy in America.

And what a fight it is:

More than 27 million Americans over the age of 17 are functionally illiterate.

Another 47 million are literate on only the most minimal level.

One out of every four ninth graders will drop out of school this year.

Illiteracy costs the United States an estimated $225 million each year; the cost of crime due to illiteracy adds an estimated $6.6 billion.

Although these figures could excuse Dollar General personnel for hiding behind their counters and doing nothing about them, reducing those figures has become a major concern in the operation of today's Dollar General Stores.

"We recognize that our customers, primarily low- to low-middle income families, are among those most profoundly affected by the barriers of illiteracy and the lack of formal education, states Cal Turner, Jr., chairman and CEO of the national discount chain. "Rather than a traditional contribution, we chose to take a grassroots approach and provide a service that would have direct, positive impact on their lives."

Thus, beginning in September 1987, Dollar General made each of its hundreds of stores a place where anyone could go to find out where to learn to read, where to take GED (General Education Development) classes or the GED tests, or where to sign up to become a tutor. The company also produced a brochure that emphasized the importance of taking hold of one's future and recognizing that not having an education is no disgrace.

"Illiterate adults are reluctant to seek help because they're embarrassed and humiliated by their lack of education," says Doug Whitney, the director of the GED Testing Service of the American Council on Education. "They are intimidated by the prospect of researching educational opportunities open to them, and they're confused by which agencies provide what services. The most crucial factor is persuading interested adults to take that first step," he says.

The Dollar General brochure thus points to J. L. Turner as someone who beat the odds with only a third-grade education. It features a postage-paid reply card preaddressed to Dollar General's home office in Scottsville, Kentucky. The cards are distributed to the appropriate adult education office in each state. The state agencies follow up by calling or mailing the information requested. The entire process takes less than two weeks.

Dollar General estimates that 250,000 brochures are currently in circulation, and inquiries continue to come in at the rate of 100 a week. In addition, the company has donated more than $500,000 of its paid advertising schedule to encourage its customers to go to the nearest Dollar General store for help. More than 375 radio stations have given an additional $260,000 in air time to the project by playing the spots as public service announcements. About 15,500 people in 28 states have benefited directly from these combined efforts.

For involvement in this effort to take literacy to grass-roots America, The Saturday Evening Post is proud to present to Dollar General Stores this month's Ben Franklin Award. Its monetary value may not be tremendous, but the appreciation for outstanding efforts that accompany it is beyond calculation. A
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Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Article Type:Biography
Date:Jul 1, 1990
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