In The Blood

For The Hammond Brothers, Success Runs in the Family
by Kevin Wood
Agenda Magazine, September 1998


The year was 1985. American moviegoers packed theaters to seeCocoon, a film about three male senior citizens who sneak into the swimming pool of a vacant rental house and discover that the mysterious pools water has remarkable, rejuvenating powers, giving the elderly trio the strength, stamina, and vigor of teenage boys.

Fast-forward 13 years to the summer of 1998, when I accept an assignment to chronicle the fascinating lives of the three high-achieving Hammond brothers: Buster, formerly with Paramount Pictures and founder of Buster's Liquors: Henry, of the Chicago Bears and MGM Studios; and Mark, successful real estate developer, and owner and operator of Rachel's Flowers. The three octogenarians have discovered that life itself has rejuvenating powers, giving the siblings the strength, stamina, and vigor of teenage boys.

It might not be a bad idea to check your pool.

Buster Hammond met me at the front door of his East Memphis home faster than a man of 88 years should make the trip. He grasped my right hand, and pulled me in as one would heartily welcome an old friend. Prior to this meeting, I had heard enough fascinating stories from their family and friends that theHammonds had become larger-than-life figures in my mind.

Buster led me to his living room where his two younger brothers were sitting. Henry, 86, and Mark, 84, immediately jumped up from their chairs to welcome me. The eldest Hammond joined his brothers and they took their seats, as I began to question these three men with more than 250 years of life experiences among them.

Buster, naturally dashing with his blazer and black-and-white wing tips, sat and leaned in my direction, curious as to my interest in him and his brothers. The first thing that I could think to ask about was his trademark, Clark Gable-style mustache.

"People always ask me how long I've worn my mustache," Buster began. "I was born with it. Growing up, I didn't have any ambitions. I was wild as hell- a little out of line. My daddy kicked me out of the house once. I was gone for three days. When I came back, he looked like an angel to me. I had very few problems with my daddy after that."

Buster is referring to R.M. "Bob" Hammond, patriarch of the Hammond clan, who was an influential man in Memphis early in this century. A self-made real estate guru, Bob believed deeply in Memphis and its potential. He was known for saying that any man seeking wealth should "go out anywhere in ShelbyCounty and throw your hat. Wherever it lands, buy that property. Someday, that land will make you rich." And so it did for Hammond. At one time, he owned some of the expanse of land that makes up the Shelby Farms/Penal Farm area, but eventually lost it to the government when he was not able to pay the property taxes for the huge land mass. A true visionary, Hammond believed inMemphis as a distribution center and major port. Among Hammond's interest were prizefighting, civic matters, and growing flowers. Hearing more about him, it becomes apparent where the Hammond brothers got their energy. So much energy, it seems, that the brothers had to have an outlet. Buster agrees. We did like a good fight now and then, he says. In fact, when any one of use would walk up on a fight, we would ask, "Is this fight public or private?" I used to tell people, "I have more stitches in my face than most people have in their pants!"

Buster explored several careers in his early years. He was a representative with Paramount Pictures and sold motion pictures like Going My Way with Bing Crosby to theaters across the region. Following his stint at Paramount, Buster developed a partnership with Tom Kirk to open Memphis' first drive-in (convenience) grocery store. Hamkirk's, as it was called, was a huge success on the premise that it didn't close its doors until 11 p.m., while every other grocery store in town rolled up its carpets at 6 p.m. Soon, other stores inMemphis followed suit and the novelty started to fade.

Their business philosophies clashing, Buster and Tom agreed to dissolve their partnership. With a single coin flip, Tom retained ownership of the grocery portion of the business, while Buster went into the liquor business. Soon afterwards, Buster opened his first freestanding liquor store on Bellevue. He parlayed the success of that first shop into several stores, finally settling on the present location at Poplar and Highland. In 1970, he officially teamed up with his son, Rommy, to operate the current Buster's Liquors in Dillard Square.

Today, Buster's Liquors is the largest-volume liquor store in Memphis, and Buster can still be found dispensing his years of wisdom one "Busterism" at a time. Still, the elder Hammond brother takes his success in stride. "After all," says Buster, "you can't make a racehorse out of a jackass!"

Younger brother Henry, in his starched, button-down polo, looked as if he would be more comfortable on the campus of his alma mater, Southwestern atMemphis (Now Rhodes College), where he excelled as an athlete.

"In 1935, after making All-American at Southwestern, the owner of the Chicago Bears, George Halas, called to invite me to come up to Chicago to discuss a spot on the team," he says. Early Maxwell, the famous Memphis sportswriter of those days, accompanied Henry on the trip. It was there that Halas made Henry an offer, which accepted. Soon after, Henry moved to the Windy City to join such legends as Red Grange and Bronco Nagurski. Younger brother Mark remembered the time with great pride. "Yeah, Henry was the fanciest dresser in town in those days."

The next season, in 1936, the Chicago Bears won the NFL World Championship. Unfortunately, the Bears traded Henry to the Cleveland Browns shortly thereafter. Henry didnt report, however, and he decided to try his luck back inMemphis where he landed a sales position with the American Snuff Company.

After many successful years with American Snuff, Henry shifted gears and followed in his older brothers footsteps by going in to motion picture representation, only this time, with MGM Studios. Henry sold films to theaters across the MidSouth and eventually became branch manager, with Memphis Malco Theaters being his number one client. Henry even possesses one of Malco's coveted lifetime movie passes. Today, Henry is retired and can often be found fishing and trying to get a word in edgewise with brother Buster.

Checking his wristwatch, the suspendered youngest brother, Mark, definitely looks the part of a busy store owner. "Movies & fishing & see, these rich guys don't have to work for a living like the rest of us poor slobs," he laughs, ribbing his older brothers.

Mark began his early years following gin the footsteps of Buster and Henry.

"Actually, those guys were the fighters. I was a lover, not a fighter," quip Henry. "If you don't believe me, look at my six children."

Like Henry, Mark attended Southwestern and also played football, although admittedly being too small for the sport, and thus never achieving the status of the larger Henry. After college, however, Mark followed a different set of footsteps- those of his father in the real estate business.

Mark wore the hat of developer for more than two decades. Of that period, his crowing achievement was the development of Colonial Acres, still one ofMemphis' largest neighborhoods and, at the time of completion, larger in population than many towns in the Mid-South. The 2,000-lot subdivision, which boasts streets named after Marks sons and daughters, is where brother Henry lives today.

After the exhausting job of developing Colonial Acres, Mark lost the desire to work in real estate, and decided to try his hand at owning and operating a gift shop. "There was only one thing that kept the gifts shop from becoming successful," he notes Mark. "We found out that we didnt know anything about running a gift shop."

Soon after the realization, Mark was determined to open a business that he did know something about. Since he had always shared his father's love of flowers, Mark chose to open a florist shop and- honoring his mother and daughter, who were both named Rachel- named his new business after them. It was here that Mark found his niche.

Mark has grown Rachel's to become one of the busiest floral services inMemphis. What's more, Mark insists on working in the store every day. He sums up his success in business and life in one statement- "Work hard and work smart"- a point that none of the brothers, not even Buster, will argue.

Buster did have a tiny bit of advice to add to the "work and work smart" philosophy: "And have fun."

Somehow, we all knew Buster would get the last word.

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