RT Sporting Goods closing brings end to seven decades of business

In just a few short weeks, one of the iconic retail stores of downtown Garden City will lock its doors for good.

Other historical retail stores have come and gone in the downtown area — clothing, department, restaurants. But soon, without a definite date set, RT Sporting Goods, which has been at 306 N. Main St. since 1988, will close as yet another victim of the Internet age.

Steve Spellman has owned RT since 1980, having purchased it from Ulysses businessmen Ernie Woods and Hank Bell, who briefly were owners of the store after buying it from founder Ross Thornbrugh in 1979.

Thornbrugh, now retired and living in Wichita, opened the doors to RT in the spring/summer of 1970, having left the teaching and coaching profession following four years as head football coach at Garden City High School.

Spellman, himself a former teacher and football coach at Holcomb High School (1970-74), said that the downward trend of retail business in brick and mortar buildings has been evolving since the Internet was introduced nearly two decades ago. But only in the past half decade has the business finally felt the full impact of shopping online.

“I’ve never been quick on the upbeat of the Internet,” Spellman said while sitting at his desk in the back portion of the store he has called home for the past 29 years. “I probably realized about five years ago where this was going, so when your horse is dead, you’ve gotta get off. That’s where we are today.”

The business that has been the household name for more than four decades is not completely disappearing, Spellman said. He, along with his longtime associate Randy Bennett, will now be selling for Lou’s Sporting Goods, an established company headquartered in Nebraska that also has six retail operations in Kansas, Iowa and Missouri. The nearest one to Garden City is in Wichita.

“For us, this actually works better because they have access to brands that we haven’t had,” Spellman said of names such as Nike. “We used to be big with Nike, but as our volume went down, Nike wouldn’t keep us. They’ve just got better buying power.”

Spellman said he and Bennett, who joined RT in 1985 after college, will divide the roughly 90 schools that are geographically situated between I-70 to the north (Colby), east to Great Bend, and then a diagonal line down to Oklahoma. Lou’s already has sales reps in every other area of Kansas, so becoming the final piece of that puzzle seemed like the right direction to go.

“We’ve belonged to a nationwide buying group and so does Lou’s,” Spellman said. “We’ve known them for 15 years, and they’ve been interested in buying us, and I think it’s a great fit. We’ll still be able to give our customers, most of it being the schools, the same quality service that we’ve given them for all these years.”

The history

When Spellman purchased RT and had Alton Foster of Foster’s Music as a partner, the original store was located on North Eighth Street. That was the original site opened in 1970 by Thornbrugh. Partnering with Thornbrugh in the early years were Greg and Brian Shaw of Crazy House fame, and Bryce Roderick Sr. and Bryce Roderick Jr.

In 1984, Spellman moved the store to the northwest corner of Main and Laurel, at the location that once housed Anthony’s, and remained there until purchasing the current store in 1988, which previously was an Otasco.

Spellman recalls the early years and adopted the same philosophy of service that had made Thornbrugh successful during his decade of ownership.

Thornbrugh, too, said that his service and developing personal relationships with high school coaches and athletic directors was the primary reason for the success of the business.

“My idea from the beginning was to call on all the area high schools once a month and to serve them the best I could,” Thornbrugh said in a phone interview. “They all said, ‘sure you are!’ They didn’t believe that I’d do it, but after the first year, they were all saying, ‘yeah, you are calling on us.’”

Thornbrugh said that there were about 60 towns on his list, staying mostly in Kansas in the same geographic region that has been successful for Spellman and Bennett.

“We were a little into eastern Colorado, but pretty much stayed away from Nebraska and Oklahoma,” Thornbrugh said. “There was Jack Norton in Norton, and there was GW Sporting Goods in Pratt. We all just kind of had an area and didn’t overlap into somebody else’s territory, and it worked for everybody.”

Shoes for all sports, letter jackets for high schools, trophies, medals, uniforms all comprised the retail products for Thornbrugh and later Spellman.

“We had shoes in the trunk of the car all the time,” Thornbrugh recalled. “Somebody might call us in the morning to order something, and we’d box it up, take it over to The (Garden City) Telegram building, and they’d put it on the Telegram ‘Express,’” Thornbrugh said. “They’d send it out with the newspapers every afternoon, and people would have it the same day. It was a big part of our success.”

Spellman said he continued the tradition for many years, using The Telegram trucks as the local shipping business.

From coaching to sporting goods

To put things into a more historical perspective, one has to go back even further, to 1946, when Roderick Sr. moved his family to Garden City from La Crosse, where he already had established himself as a successful coach.

Roderick Sr. became the head football, basketball and track coach at Garden City Community College while teaching at GCHS. In 1948, Roderick Jr. said his father opened Western Kansas Sporting Goods, which eventually was located on North Eighth Street, nearly across from where RT Sporting Goods would open some 20 years later.

“I’m not sure where the original store was located, somewhere downtown,” Bryce Jr. said in a phone interview. “Eventually, he opened Roderick Enterprises, which also included wrestling equipment.”

Bryce Jr. said that his father eventually sold the sporting goods business to Chet Pennington of Dodge City, who then sold it to Jim Knight of Salina. That store eventually closed.

Myron Roderick, a brother to Bryce Sr., had been a successful college coach at Oklahoma State University, and the brothers and Bryce Jr., opened a wrestling mat manufacturing business in a building located at Garden City Municipal Airport. Bryce Jr. returned to Garden City in 1968 to manage the mat manufacturing business, which he did until the late 1970s.

The common denominator among all the principal owners has been coaching. Roderick Sr., Thornbrugh and Spellman all share similar paths to the sporting goods business.

Thornbrugh said that when they settled on the name RT, most people in the area thought it meant Roderick-Thornbrugh, but the reality was it simply was his first and last initials.

“Bryce had such a great reputation, we didn’t dispel the notion that it was Roderick-Thornbrugh,” Thornbrugh said with a laugh. “There wasn’t any reason to correct it.”

In the early years of RT, following the death of Bryce Sr., Thornbrugh bought out that share from the family estate, and then eventually bought out Bryce Jr.’s share, the younger Roderick said.

“Ross was the guy. He was the one making all the contacts with the schools,” Bryce Jr. said. “My dad always said that it might not be the best combination for business and refereeing to sell equipment to schools. There were times when he’d get a call canceling an order, and then a day later get a call saying they still wanted to do business.”

Spellman said that his prior coaching and teaching contacts paid off for him through the years.

“For me, having coached in the Hi-Plains League at Holcomb, I knew everybody in the league,” he said. “Those schools have been the bread and butter through the years. It’s all been about having great people working for you, and building the relationships with the schools and then giving them the best service you can.”

A team effort

Spellman said that while he ends up receiving much of the credit for the business’ success, it goes without saying that his wife, Mary Beth, deserves a lions share of that credit, as does Bennett.

“She was the glue to the business,” Spellman said of Mary Beth. “She’s the one that took all the phone calls, got people where they needed to be and she’s been a vital, vital part of our success.

“The bookkeeping is the heartbeat of the business, and she oversaw all of that. I’m not sure what she’ll do after we close, but she certainly deserves a rest for everything she’s done.”

Spellman said he was unsure how long he will continue his work on the road with Lou’s, but added that he was excited to just focus completely on the schools, and indicated he had little regret about his career in the business.

“I really don’t have many regrets,” Spellman said. “They key to longevity in business is the people you have. I’ve had three daughters work here at some time or another, and they’ve played a big role, too.”

One of his daughters, Megan Williams, has purchased the printing and graphics component of the RT business, and will move sometime in mid-July to Aug. 1, to 1135 College Drive, Suite F, and open it under a new name.

Times have changed

So for the better part of seven decades, RT has done business as a locally-owned sporting goods store. But that will all end soon.

Times have changed. Buying habits have changed. The Internet has altered the landscape of retail business. As much as anything, that’s what happened to RT Sporting Goods, Spellman said.

“If there’s a silver lining here at the end of this, it’s that our customers, the schools, will still get the same great service we’ve provided to them for 37 years,” Spellman said.

Contact Brett Marshall at bmarshall@gctelegram.com

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