Photo: Janice Waltzer from Owasso, USA / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)
Born: March 29, 1918
Born Place: Kingfisher, Oklahoma, United States
Died: April 5, 1992
Death Place: UAMS – University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, Little Rock, Arkansas, United States
Spouse: Helen Robson (m. 1943; his death 1992)
Net Worth: US$8.6 billion (at the time of death)
Occupation: Founder of Walmart and Sam’s Club
Samuel Moore Walton (March 29, 1918 – April 5, 1992) was an American businessman and entrepreneur best known for founding the retailers Walmart and Sam’s Club. Wal-Mart Stores Inc. grew to be the world’s largest corporation by revenue as well as the biggest private employer in the world. For a period of time, Walton was the richest man in America.
Samuel Moore Walton was born to Thomas Gibson Walton and Nancy Lee, in Kingfisher, Oklahoma. He lived there with his parents on their farm until 1923. However, farming did not provide enough money to raise a family, and Thomas Walton went into farm mortgaging. He worked for his brother’s Walton Mortgage Company, which was an agent for Metropolitan Life Insurance, where he foreclosed on farms during the Great Depression.
He and his family (now with another son, James, born in 1921) moved from Oklahoma. They moved from one small town to another for several years, mostly in Missouri. While attending eighth grade in Shelbina, Missouri, Sam became the youngest Eagle Scout in the state’s history. In adult life, Walton became a recipient of the Distinguished Eagle Scout Award from the Boy Scouts of America.
Eventually the family moved to Columbia, Missouri. Growing up during the Great Depression, he did chores to help make financial ends meet for his family as was common at the time. He milked the family cow, bottled the surplus, and drove it to customers. Afterwards, he would deliver Columbia Daily Tribune newspapers on a paper route. In addition, he sold magazine subscriptions. Upon graduating from David H. Hickman High School in Columbia, he was voted “Most Versatile Boy”.
After high school, Walton decided to attend college, hoping to find a better way to help support his family. He attended the University of Missouri as an ROTC cadet. During this time, he worked various odd jobs, including waiting tables in exchange for meals. Also during his time in college, Walton joined the Zeta Phi chapter of Beta Theta Pi fraternity. He was also tapped by QEBH, the well-known secret society on campus honoring the top senior men, and the national military honor society Scabbard and Blade. Additionally, Walton served as president of Burall Bible Class, a large class of students from the University of Missouri and Stephens College. Upon graduating in 1940 with a bachelor’s degree in economics, he was voted “permanent president” of the class.
Furthermore, he elaborated that he learned from a very early age that it was important for them as kids to help provide for the home, to be contributors rather than takers. Walton realized while serving in the army, that he wanted to go into retailing and to go into business for himself.
Walton joined J. C. Penney as a management trainee in Des Moines, Iowa, three days after graduating from college. This position paid him $75 a month. Walton spent approximately 18 months with J. C. Penney. He resigned in 1942 in anticipation of being inducted into the military for service in World War II. In the meantime, he worked at a DuPont munitions plant near Tulsa, Oklahoma. Soon afterwards, Walton joined the military in the U.S. Army Intelligence Corps, supervising security at aircraft plants and prisoner of war camps. In this position he served at Fort Douglas in Salt Lake City, Utah. He eventually reached the rank of captain.
Walton married Helen Robson on February 14, 1943. They had four children: Samuel Robson (Rob) born in 1944, John Thomas (1946–2005), James Carr (Jim) born in 1948, and Alice Louise born in 1949. Walton supported various charitable causes. He and Helen were active in 1st Presbyterian Church in Bentonville; Sam served as an Elder and a Sunday School teacher, teaching high school age students. The family made substantial contributions to the congregation.
Walton died on Sunday, April 5, 1992, of multiple myeloma, a type of blood cancer, in Little Rock, Arkansas. The news of his death was relayed by satellite to all 1,960 Walmart stores. At the time, his company employed 380,000 people. Annual sales of nearly $50 billion flowed from 1,735 Walmarts, 212 Sam’s Clubs, and 13 Supercenters.
His remains are interred at the Bentonville Cemetery. He left his ownership in Walmart to his wife and their children: Rob Walton succeeded his father as the Chairman of Walmart, and John Walton was a director until his death in a 2005 plane crash. The others are not directly involved in the company (except through their voting power as shareholders), however his son Jim Walton is chairman of Arvest Bank. The Walton family held five spots in the top ten richest people in the United States until 2005. Two daughters of Sam’s brother Bud Walton—Ann Kroenke and Nancy Laurie—hold smaller shares in the company.
In 1998, Walton was included in Time’s list of 100 most influential people of the 20th Century. Walton was honored for his work in retail in March 1992, just one month before his death, when he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from then-President George H. W. Bush.
Forbes ranked Sam Walton as the richest person in the United States from 1982-88, ceding the top spot to John Kluge in 1989 when the editors began to credit Walton’s fortune jointly to him and his four children. (Bill Gates first headed the list in 1992, the year Walton died). Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. also runs Sam’s Club warehouse stores. Walmart operates in the United States and in more than fifteen international markets, including: Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, China, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, India, South Africa, Botswana, Ghana, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, Kenya, Lesotho, Swaziland, Honduras, Japan, Mexico, Nicaragua and the United Kingdom.
At the University of Arkansas, the Business College (Sam M. Walton College of Business) is named in his honor. Walton was inducted into the Junior Achievement U.S. Business Hall of Fame in 1992.