After running his family’s company that was a Shawnee staple on Main Street for 91 years, N.W. “Wilson” Baptist III has sold Baptist’s Athletic Supply, which is now closed.
But part of the legacy of that business will live on as Baptist’s salespeople, through a new company, will continue to serve area schools and customers with athletic gear and uniforms.
Baptist’s Athletic Supply has supplied area schools with uniforms and sporting gear for decades, so generations of past and current students in this area and all over the state have likely worn uniforms sold by the company.
Baptist has run the Shawnee business since 1969, but he said it’s time to retire.
“I’ve never regretted it — it’s been a wonderful life and I’ve enjoyed every minute,” he said.
Baptist said the many loyal and dedicated employees, past and present, helped him, his father, and grandfather make the business a success.
“We’ve served Shawnee 91 years…we couldn’t have done it without the help of a lot of folks.”
In 1922, Baptist’s grandfather, N.W. Baptist, who was a hardware salesman who called on businesses by horse and buggy, bought an existing hardware store that had been open in the Main Street location since 1898 and changed the name to Baptist’s. The hardware store carried household items, hunting and fishing gear, and even sold firearms in those early days, Baptist said.
What began as a 25-foot storefront would begin to grow. In 1932, Baptist’s father, N.W. Baptist Jr., who went by the name “Buddy,” graduated from The University of Oklahoma. Seeing his father’s business struggling during the depression, he joined the family company and became a partner.
“For my dad, it was the best decision of his life — he loved it since day one,” Baptist said.
As a golfer, Baptist Jr. started carrying golf equipment and some other sporting goods in the hardware store, which began the slow change into athletic equipment as a retail category, with everything from baseball bats to gloves and football helmets.
Expanding athletic business
In 1946, the father and son team hired Jimmie Brownell, who began calling on schools, which became part of the team business of selling sports-related school uniforms and other gear.
The business expanded further with R.W. Baptist Jr. buying another storefront on Main Street to operate Baptist Boats and Motors.
Page 2 of 4 - When Baptist’s grandfather died in 1951, his father ran the business on his own with “a lot of really great employees.”
When Baptist graduated from OU in 1963, he joined the Air Force. After four years, he returned home to Shawnee in 1967.
He did quite a bit of hunting in Alaska during those years, and it was on one of those trips that Baptist shot a brown bear standing nearly 10 feet tall. His father encouraged him to have the bear stuffed for the store, so it made its way to Shawnee by truck and was uncrated on Main Street, attracting quite a crowd. The bear became a store attraction.
When Baptist Jr. had a stroke in 1969, he had to retire and left the day-to-day operation to his son, including the start of the athletic supply side in 1970.
Back then, athletics were fast becoming a retail item, as more people began buying athletic shoes – not just for sports — but also to wear to school and everyday activity.
Since then, he’s been working six days a week.
Changes in business
While the athletic portions of the company expanded over the years to include stores and locations in the mall, along with stores in Stillwater, Norman, Oklahoma City, Edmond and even McAlester, Baptist later scaled those back over the years and strictly operated out of the Shawnee store.
In the early 90s, with the arrival of Shawnee Mall, foot traffic in the Main Street store decreased, so he focused and expanded the team sporting business with sales people calling on even more schools in the field, which expanded further and evolved to include schools all over Oklahoma, parts of Texas, and even some in Kansas and Arkansas.
“We made a conscious decision to go to the customers rather than wait for them to come to us…we went to the schools and expanded,” he said, with Baptist Athletic Supply becoming the largest athletic store in Oklahoma.
With the premise of taking presentations to schools and selling team uniforms to schools, then selling other items the school didn’t purchase directly to the students — from shoes to gloves, letter jackets and other items — the business continually grew in an Internet market.
While Baptist enjoyed that success, he began a few years back thinking about the future of the business.
A transition phase
This year, at age 73, Baptist, who never married or had children to leave the business to, began looking at options for the business so he could retire.
“As much as I wanted to see it continue, I was unable to work out a plan I thought would work,” he said.
Page 3 of 4 - He first began negotiations with an interested buyer but wasn’t pleased with that setup, but then, out of the blue, he heard from another company that Baptist would ultimately admire and make plans to entrust with his business.
With 11 salespeople on the payroll for the school business, with them traveling all over Oklahoma and parts of Texas, Baptist wanted that part of the business to continue for his sales people to have jobs.
Baptist found that when he met with officials from Lids Team Sports, based in Indianapolis, they wanted an opportunity to expand their team business.
Everything fell into place for a sale and the transaction for the sale was completed last month, he said, with the new company picking up inventory and Baptist closing up the storefront on Shawnee’s Main Street, with Lids hiring all of Baptist’s salespeople to continue serving schools with new sales.
While it is closed to the public, the store is still in operation with employees busy at work to serve those with previous sales while filling past orders as they work to close out all the books and billing, a process that should be complete by the end of this year, he said.
Lids Team Sports, which has retail stores all over the U.S., now has a store inside Shawnee Mall, he said, and with Baptist’s previous sales people already in place, contracts and relationships with schools and customers in this area won’t change as they continue to provide the same products.
“This way they retained all of our sales force,” Baptist said, although he regrets a few of his store employees will not be employed once all accounts are settled.
And while Baptist is sad about the end of Baptist Athletic Supply, he said he’s happy he found a quality company to continue the service to customers.
“I couldn’t be more pleased,” adding he admires the company greatly.
“We all made the right decision,” he said.
Before he made the deal, Baptist sent his salespeople to Indianapolis to check out their potential new employer.
“I wanted them to be happy and associated with a quality company,” he said.
In the meantime, he and the current staff will continue to finish up accounting and clean up the building on Main Street, which he will eventually put up for lease or for sale.
Retirement for Baptist
“I’m very sad…but I’m 73 and I need to move on with life,” he said, adding he is anxious for retirement.
Page 4 of 4 - “I’m sad the store won’t continue but I’m happy I found a resolution and successful plan,” he said, which will allow the new company to serve many loyal customers.
He commented on Jimmie Brownell, now 91 years old, who was important to the success of the business in its early years. Brownell's son, Jimmie, also worked for Baptist for 40 years and is now an employee of Lids, he said.
Baptist, who started helping his dad in the store as a third grader, said the business and its people has been his family most of his life.
“I’m so pleased everything has worked out,” he said. “I speak for myself and for my grandfather and father to express sincere appreciation to both the employees and customers for their loyalty and dedication.”
And while many usually plan to travel during retirement, Baptist said he’s looking forward to staying in Shawnee and enjoying life each day.
Longtime attraction to find new home
And the longtime attraction at the business, the nearly 10-foot stuffed Alaskan brown bear on display in the store since 1967, will be moved to the Santa Fe Depot to be part of the historical society’s collection.
Baptist, who shot the bear during an Alaska hunting trip in 1967, said with the business being sold, he wasn’t quite sure what to do with the bear.
For years, it wasn’t uncommon for people to bring children by the storefront to see it, with handprints and face prints an everyday occurrence as children moved up close to the window to see the bear, he said.
It was never in the direct sunlight, but a reflection started fading the brown bear, which is now more of a cream color.
“People still come by to this day and bring their grandkids to see that bear,” he said.
“I really wanted it to be somewhere in Shawnee,” he said, adding he is pleased the local historical society will put the bear on display locally.
Plans are being made to move the bear to its new location.