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In a Country That Loves Cowboys, Jack Weil's Western Wear a Good Fit

  • Nancy Greenleese

Jack Weil was born two years before the Wright Brothers' first successful flight in 1903. He came to western city of Denver, Colorado, when the main street here was still gravel. Now the country's oldest CEO stands, slightly stooped, at the corner of a paved and busy intersection. It's his birthday, but also a workday, so he's all business as a brief public ceremony gets underway.

Dozens of friends and community leaders watch as Weil yanks a string that undrapes a street sign that's been renamed "Jack Weil Boulevard." "I can't believe it!" he says to applause from the crowd. "A country boy from Indiana! I appreciate all of you all coming, and I hope that you all come back next year or maybe sooner. We're right down the street."

The consummate salesman doesn't miss a chance to lasso everyone into Rockmount Ranch Wear. Weil's store is in a historic brick building with a tin ceiling and plenty of animal-head trophies on the walls. Here, Weil is in the saddle - that is, sitting behind a hulking wooden desk, wearing a blue plaid Rockmount shirt and a cowboy hat.

His late wife Beatrice used to say that his mistress was Rockmount Ranch Wear. Weil worked 10-hour days until his 90s, peddling the shirts that were inspired by early Western movies. Weil realized that even city slickers wanted to look the part. "I felt that there was a market. Everybody loved a cowboy. Every guy wanted to be a cowboy."

But Weil's designs also have real cowboys in mind. He introduced shirts with snaps instead of buttons that allow a cowboy to break free if caught by a steer's horns. Weil also asked the legendary Stetson hat company to modify its western hat brims so that he could put in a wire and curl them up. "And the reason for that," he explains with a laugh, "was so that four could ride across [in one seat] in a pickup!"

Family and friends credit Papa Jack's amazing memory for helping to build Rockmount into a western wear leader. He impresses customers by remembering tiny details about their lives and sharing stories of his own. History buff Dennis Gallagher often stops by for a hat -- and a chat. "He talks about when he first came to Denver," Gallagher explains. "The [Ku Klux] Klan was in charge and they didn't like people of the Jewish faith. I think it shows you that if you stick things out and work hard, you can conquer."

Rockmount Ranch Wear is one of more than 24 million family businesses in the United States, but one of just a handful that have remained in the family for three generations. These small businesses employ nearly two-thirds of the American workforce, and generate 64 percent of the annual gross national product.

Weil's had no trouble winning over customers born and bred in the West - and elsewhere. Michel Valle lives in Denver but grew up in France, where Weil's father was born. The retiree is here today, adding to his collection of about two dozen Rockmount shirts. "It's quality," Valle says. "I mean nobody makes shirts like Rockmount anymore. That is why true cowboys come here."

The fashion-forward French aren't the only ones wearing Weil's creations. Singer Elvis Presley and President Ronald Reagan were customers, as are many musicians, including Eric Clapton and Bonnie Raitt. Rockmount shirts were worn by the two main characters of the movie Brokeback Mountain and played a pivotal role in their love story.

Weil's son, Jack B., still working at 77, is credited with expanding the company's reach beyond the West. His son, Steve, joined grandpa's business in 1981. "When I came to work with him," he recalls, "I never expected it would be 25 years, 'cause he was 80 when I came to work here!"

Steve credits his grandfather's longevity to his love for his work… and some simple rules. "He lives moderately, he doesn't overeat. He doesn't let things get to him. He's not a stressed kind of person."

And Jack Weil also gets some help loosening up from another fellow named Jack: Jack Daniels whiskey. "My doctor tells me to take a drink once or twice a week to keep my blood thin," he says with a grin. "What the hell? I'm 106 and I'm still here." And still getting up for work each day. Jack Weil has no plans to ride off into the sunset anytime soon. He says he doesn't know what he'd do if he retired.

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