The annual Christmas luncheon was called for noon, but many members of the Atlanta Sears Family had arrived at the church hall by 10:30 a.m.
There was a lot to catch up on: birthdays, illnesses and news of club members who had died over the past few months. There was baked ham, green beans and cherry pie for lunch. There was music — oldies and Christmas carols mostly. One club member, 84-year-old Herman Atwood, danced to “My Girl,” twisting and twirling in his Sears Roebuck sweater vest as if he was at a wedding.
Sears may be struggling to survive after filing for bankruptcy in October, its rundown and empty stores symbolizing a has-been company that failed to adapt. But across the country, legions of former Sears workers like Mr. Atwood, a retired truck driver, gather regularly to reminisce about their long careers in retailing. The brands like Kenmore and DieHard that lasted for decades. The limitless creativity of shoplifters. The impossible task of selecting the women’s shoe inventory.
For an older generation of Sears retirees, their former employer remains a central part of their lives, a throwback in an industry now known for high turnover, low wages and costly health care. Today, there are dozens of Sears alumni groups, from Bangor, Me., to Sioux Falls, S.D., forming one of the largest and most active retiree networks in the nation.
“It feels like family,” Mattie Hughey said as she sat with three friends she met packing catalog orders in the Sears warehouse in Atlanta 30 years ago.
Long before it went bankrupt, before it was taken over by the hedge fund manager Edward S. Lampert, and before Amazon pioneered internet shopping, Sears was the nation’s largest retailer, with about 350,000 employees near its peak.
In its heyday, a period stretching from the end of World War II to the 1970s, Sears offered many of its workers a clear path to the middle class. The company paid well, shared profits and provided retirement benefits that have helped many former employees live in relative comfort.
Madison Price, 87, comes every year to the holiday luncheon to see old friends and soak in the music. He grew up working on a farm in Georgia, helping grow cotton and corn. His father split the proceeds from their crops with the man who owned the farm. Mr. Price didn’t finish high school and often missed school because he was needed on the farm.
After returning from the Korean War, Mr. Price got a job as a janitor in a store in Atlanta in 1958. When he retired after 34 years, Mr. Price sold the Sears stock the company had granted him over the years and took his pension in a lump sum.
He reinvested the money only in things that he uses: shares in Georgia’s power utilities and municipal bonds of DeKalb County and the Atlanta airport. Today, Mr. Price said he drew enough in dividends and interest from his investment portfolio, along with Social Security, to live comfortably. He paid for his son’s college tuition, and his wife, Earnestine, has been able to take trips with her friends.
“I am blessed,” Mr. Price said.
Many of the retirees at the luncheon said they viewed their time at Sears as being part of something bigger than just working at a successful retailer. They worked for a force in American culture and business. Sears sold everything: feed for chickens, Whirlpool washing machines, as well as the nightgowns, watches and erector sets in the Christmas “wish book.”
“One man came by looking for a wagon for his horse,” said Jerril Parker, who worked in security at Sears in the Atlanta area for 45 years.
Sears also had an outsize physical presence. In Atlanta, the company occupied one of the largest buildings in the region — a store, warehouse and regional office covering over two million square feet. The red brick warehouse on Ponce De Leon Avenue was a precursor to the e-commerce fulfillment centers that shipped thousands of items ordered through the catalog.
Mr. Parker recalled hiding in a refrigerator box with small holes cut into the side so he could conduct surveillance on employees unloading merchandise.
One day, Mr. Parker said, his security staff caught a young seasonal worker trying to steal seven plaid skirts for his sister and her cheerleading squad by wearing them under his pants. “He just kept getting bigger and bigger through the day,” Mr. Parker said.
Sears workers became experts in their fields — heating systems, kitchen appliances, cosmetics. And they were proud of what they sold. Elder Penny, who started at Sears after serving as a Navy supply officer in World War II, was a regional buyer of women’s shoes. Mr. Penny, 94, still has the same Kenmore refrigerator he bought at Sears in 1974.
“I think I will wear out before it does,” he said.
There was also a feeling of camaraderie and support. Decades ago, the Sears headquarters in Illinois were referred to as “parent” — a telling symbol of the way employees viewed their employer.
Experienced workers took new recruits under their wing. When a manager relocated to a new store, other employees there helped him look for a new home.
Bill Rudolph, 66, came to the lunch with his friend Dorothy Davis, who he met when he was a manager in a Sears in the Atlanta area. He picked up Ms. Davis, 89, at her home and gave her a ride because she has stopped driving.
Mr. Rudolph, who started at Sears when he was 18, said Ms. Davis and other women looked out for him during his early years at the company. Mr. Rudolph went on to become a director of operations nationally before retiring in March after 47 years.
“It was a place where people cared for each other,” said Mr. Rudolph, who was overcome with emotion recalling the help he received from the older women.
Sears today is nothing like the company many retirees remember. The retailer stopped profit-sharing in the 1970s and more recently hired employees no longer receive pensions. Under its chairman, Mr. Lampert, the company has been selling off many of its most valuable stores and laying off thousands of workers.
This month, Mr. Lampert, through his hedge fund, ESL Investments, made a bid in bankruptcy to acquire many of the company’s remaining stores, the appliance brand Kenmore and battery brand DieHard. Mr. Lampert said the proposal would keep 50,000 workers employed.
Retirees warned long ago that Mr. Lampert’s involvement with Sears would end badly. When his hedge fund acquired the company in 2005 by merging it with Kmart, a group of former workers hired a plane to fly over the headquarters in Illinois pulling a banner that read, “Sears Unfair to Retirees.”
The group, National Association of Retired Sears Employees, has been keeping a close eye on their former employer under Mr. Lampert. They hold regular conference calls, where members detail the conditions of local Sears stores.
“I was in an auto center having four tires put on the other day,” reported Jim McCurtain, a retiree from Tampa, on last month’s conference call. “They did a great job.”
Another retiree on the call reported that her friend successfully had the ice maker in her refrigerator cleaned out by a Sears repairman, whom she noted was “very precise, very courteous.”
The retirees’ pensions are expected to survive the bankruptcy largely intact thanks to a backstop from the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation. But if Sears goes into a liquidation, which many analysts and investors say is likely, then the retirees would lose most of their life insurance benefits.
In the current incarnation of Sears, recruiting new members to the alumni groups has been difficult. Two decades ago, there were 250 clubs, now there are only about 45. More recent retirees, who did not receive pensions or profit-sharing, do not share the same allegiance as older generations.
“Sears was a great company,” said Ron Olbrysh, who retired from the Sears legal department in the 1990s and is now chairman of the national retiree association “But I am glad we got out when we did.”
Age is another challenge. The Atlanta club regularly updates its 160 members with a “bereavement report” listing local retirees who have died.
As the luncheon in Decatur finished, Lynn Walker Capland lingered in the church hall, helping clean off the tables and talking with friends. Ms. Capland, 66, is not only a former employee, she is what she calls a “byproduct of Sears.” Her mother and father met while working at the Christmas pickup window in the Atlanta store.
Ms. Walker left the company before reaching retirement age because she said she wasn’t suited for her final job in the collections department. But she still takes a day off from current work at an accounting firm to attend the luncheon every year.
“No one makes time for these types of things anymore. Everyone is so busy,” she said. “This way of life is almost gone.”