Gary Goes For A Swim

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“I’d like you to think about a little place out back where we could all work out,” said our founder Gary Comer one day to Milt Martinson, the Green Bay architect who had designed most of the Lands’ End office buildings in Dodgeville.

Well, things had a way of sprouting up like corn at Lands’ End back in those days, and a couple years later – February 24, 1989 to be exact – we all found ourselves standing around an Olympic-sized swimming pool, celebrating the dedication of the brand new Lands’ End Activity Center.

It had turned out to be more than a “little place out back.”  A whopping 80,000 square feet, the new center had a gym, 1/8th  mile indoor track, racquetball courts and a plethora of exercise equipment in addition to the
75-meter pool.

“I’ve been to every major corporate health facility in the country, and this is the best of them all,” commented Ray Squires of the Mayo Clinic, on a visit to the new Lands’ End center the week before it opened.

But as we stood around the pool that day, most of us were feeling more impressed with the size of Gary Comer’s heart than we were with the size of the Activity Center. The founder of Lands’ End cared about his employees – we’d always known that from the time he spent with all of us – but this new facility was further evidence.

The usual speeches were given, all of them heartfelt, some of them more interesting than others. Most touching was one from Sam Fink, a legendary advertising art director who had known Gary for over thirty years.

“Gary is a dreamer,” said Sam. “He dreamt and he dreamt, and this is what he dreamt.” Sam spread his arms wide, seemingly to encompass the whole activity center.

Gary had asked Sam if there was anything he could do to decorate the new center, Sam being an artist of no small repute. Sam answered, “What you oughta’ do is honor all the people who work for you, because I know you love them.” Gary told Sam he could do anything he wanted, to accomplish that.

So when all the speechifying was over, Gary cut the ribbon for the new Activity Center, and a banner fell away to reveal Sam’s handiwork. There were 1,400 names hand-lettered by Sam on the pool wall tiles – the names of every permanent full-time and part-time employee at Lands’ End at that time, along with this inscription:

These are the names of the people whose daily work and good spirit at Lands’ End have made this building possible. It is dedicated to them and their continued good health.

“Years from now, you can come with your kids and your grandkids, show them your name, and tell them you were a part of all this,” said Gary.

What we remember most from the dedication ceremony was what happened after Gary cut the ribbon. A couple boisterous (and brave) employees tossed him into the new pool, necktie and all.

Gary flipped onto his back, swam gracefully halfway down the lane, then turned over and finished out the length freestyle. Not Mark Spitz, but not bad. He emerged in soaking Oxford and khakis, to wild applause. Walked along the end of the pool, shaking a few hands, then jumped up on the diving board, did a graceful swan dive, and swam another length!

We’ve all swam our share of laps since then, and sweated buckets on the stair-climbers and treadmills and weight machines. Some of our kids have learned how to swim in that pool, and started a lifelong love of exercise. A few past Presidents of the company have even joined in the fiercely-contested noontime basketball games, throwing up their share of wild treys.

Just as Gary intended, we’ve had a ton of fun in the Activity Center – now appropriately called the Comer Center. And every time we go there, we can still see him paddling in the pool, his knit tie floating on top of the water, a happy grin on his face.

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