BY MICHAEL S. RENEAU
ASSISTANT MANAGING EDITOR
When Charles Kyker began working in Greeneville, President John F. Kennedy was still alive. Popular on television were "The Andy Griffith Show" and "The Dick Van Dyke Show."
Downtown Greeneville was still the heart of the town's retail establishment, with several department stores, drug stores, five-and-ten-cent stores, men's and women's clothing stores, and numerous other businesses and offices up and down Main and Depot streets.
Much has changed since 1963, when Kyker opened his first Greeneville store at 107 E. Depot St., but more than 50 years later one thing hasn't changed: his presence on the Greeneville retail scene.
Main Street: Greeneville presented Kyker, 73, a certificate Tuesday recognizing him for his five decades as a Greeneville merchant, making it through challenging retail changes.
Kyker's, now located at 121 W. Depot St., is a throwback to the department stores one would have found on the block decades ago. Inside it's lined with racks of men's suits, sport coats, ties, women's dresses and even motor oil.
"I've had everything," Kyker said of his merchandise. "I used to sell Coca-Cola for a dime."
"When I think about how long Mr. Kyker has been in business in downtown Greeneville -- the challenges he and other retailers have faced over the years -- it amazes me that he has stayed with it this long," Main Street: Greeneville Executive Director Jann Mirkov said.
"His longevity within the retail sector of our community deserves to be acknowledged and recognized. Main Street: Greeneville is pleased to do just that.
"It's the only place I know of where you can buy motor oil and and a cummerbund," Mirkov noted with a smile.
GETTING TO GREENEVILLE
Kyker came to Greeneville in September 1963 to run a department store for the Ira A. Watson Company -- better known as Watson's.
The company had purchased a building here, and brought Kyker in to help get it ready for opening. "I scratched Sherwin-Williams paint off the building," he recalled this week.
He had been working in the Watson's chain since he was a youngster, starting in 1952 as a janitor.
Along the way, the Newport native worked in Watson's stores in Troy and Russellville, Ala., and Oak Ridge and Fayetteville, Tenn.
He took a break in 1959 to marry his wife, Ann, who still comes to the store with him. They now have two grown daughters and one grandson, an actor who's appeared on the former ABC sitcom "Samanta Who?"
Kyker served in the U.S. Army on the front lines of the Cold War.
He said he can't talk about much of his service working with the Army and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), but he is quick to point out that he logged more than 400,000 miles as an Army driver without an accident while he served from 1959-62.
He drove around General Lucius D. Clay Sr., who was once military governor of the U.S. Zone in Germany following World War II, and directed the Berlin Airlift.
After retiring in 1949, Clay returned to Berlin at the request of President Kennedy when the government of East Germany, a puppet state of the Soviet Union, began building the Berlin Wall in the eastern sector of the city in 1961.
Kennedy sent Clay to Berlin to observe and to advise him about the situation.
Kyker was there then, too, and watched as the East Germans constructed the wall.
"We just watched them, and they put it up," Kyker said.
His son-in-law, who was serving in the Army when the Berlin Wall came down, brought Kyker a sign that once hung on the wall.
Kyker finished his stint with the Army and returned home in 1962.
He was working in Russellville, Ala., later in 1963 when he got the call that Watson's was opening its Greeneville store, and he hurried here with his wife to open it.
BUILDING A BUSINESS
He has flourished since branching out on his own in 1979, at his current West Depot Street location.
He now owns businesses or property in three states and four different counties, he said, including five buildings in Greeneville that he rents to others.
Along with raising two daughters with his wife, Kyker said, he has bought out dozens of competitors.
He said he has continually reinvested in his businesses along the way.
"I never did eat up my profit," he said. "If I sold a shirt, I bought two back."
DECADES OF CHANGE
The days of downtown department stores -- other than Kyker's -- are long gone, but he has watched the transformation from his storefront. He said the cycles of change come about every 10 years.
In order for retail establishments to thrive in small downtowns today, Kyker thinks merchants have to own their own buildings, and seemingly small issues such as parking make a big difference in the viability of a business.
Shoppers have more choices than ever before about where to spend their money.
"Back in the '50s, it didn't matter," he said. "You only had one place to come in this town [to shop]. That's different. Times have just changed."
Kyker, who over the years hasn't shied away from sometimes-contentious debates about what would "work" for downtown Greeneville, credited his own longevity as a downtown merchant to his work ethic.
"In all my years, I might have missed three days and not opened my store," he said. "And that's lately -- because I had gout."
Kyker said his job is still fun, even after all these years.
"I'm still enthused!" he said. "I love everything about it."