Donald Zale shares father’s legacy in memoir
Photo: Richard Rodriguez/TJP

A rare gem

By Michael Sudhalter

Businessman and philanthropist Donald Zale decided, in his late 80s, to write a memoir for the purpose of sharing the legacy of his late father, Morris Bernard (M.B.) Zale (1901-1995).

M.B. Zale was born in an eastern European shtetl and arrived in America at the age of 6.

“My father is a quintessential example of living the American Dream,” Zale said. “He came to America after the pogroms in Poland, with parents who were destitute. He only made it through the sixth grade before needing to drop out. And he went on to build the largest retail jewelry company in the world. If that’s not the premier example of the American Dream, there isn’t one.”

Donald Zale grew up around the company and went on to serve as president and CEO (1971) and chairman and CEO (1981) of Zale Corporation.

At age 90, after 18 months of collaboration on this project, Zale self-published “Nobody Gets Hurt at the Office: The Life & Legacy of M.B. Zale.” He wrote the book together with Rabbi Dan Lewin. M.B. had a tireless work ethic and the memoir’s title is based upon a phrase he said in response to learning of out-of-the office mishaps of some of his employees. The book incorporates family history and Texas history, a detailed evolution of the company, Donald Zale’s personal anecdotes and his life after Zales.

“M.B.’s descendants will surely face different challenges than he and my mother faced,” Zale writes in the book. “But if I can present this story in the right way, they’ll understand and appreciate their roots, what it took for them to be here, and they’ll realize they can do anything they put their minds to.”

Donald Zale and his beloved wife, Barbara, were married for 67 years. Barbara passed away last year, but she was very supportive of her husband’s commitment to completing the memoir. Together, they had three children, Barry, Julie and Dana; 13 grandchildren (two have since passed away); and 10 great-grandchildren, with one on the way.

After reading Nate Levine’s memoir, Zale reached out to Lewin, as his reputation as a prolific writer preceded him through Levine’s memoir and other projects.

“It was an amazing experience to work with the Zales,” Lewin said. “Every book has a different style. You need to make sure a person’s voice and personality come through and ensure that you do justice to their journey and their family history. To capture the life story of someone who is 50 or 60 years old is already a massive task. And here, it’s amazing that you had someone at almost 90 years old who was eager to piece together his journey on paper. That’s not a small feat. To put in the work and have the mental stamina and sharp memory that [Donald] does — he made my job easy, and I tried to make his job of telling the stories easy as well. The printed words are a result of some good, in-depth conversations. And we had a lot of fun producing this.”

Zale’s youngest daughter, Dana Gerard, played an important role in ensuring that the memoir came to fruition. Zale and Lewin would have interview and writing sessions at Gerard’s home. She was present for the conversations, offering her memories, insights and editing skills as well.

“I really enjoyed it — it’s been great,” Gerard said. “I got much more out of it than I ever put into it. It was such a delight to spend time with my father. Growing up, the company was obviously a huge part of our lives, but I never worked professionally with my father (though both my siblings did.) While creating this book, I had the opportunity to listen and learn things about my dad that I never knew and to appreciate a big part of his life in a way I never would have. And Rabbi Lewin did an incredible job of telling Dad’s story and our family’s story.”

Lewin was especially touched by the multigenerational input and poignant nature of Zale’s stories— which ranged from his perspective as a young child learning from his father to a CEO making major decisions for a global company, to the present day, where he’s a great-grandfather reflecting upon a lifetime. At the same time, the book incorporates old interviews with the company’s leaders and the voice of his precious daughter, now a grandmother herself, who will pass on the lessons in this memoir to her children.

The initial round of printing included a few hundred copies, which will be distributed to family, friends and former Zales employees, with a private book signing event at the Museum of Biblical Art in Dallas on Nov. 12.

M.B.’s roots

The Zalefskys settled in Fort Worth, where young M.B. enrolled in school. He was forced to drop out because the family couldn’t afford to purchase books. “Though his formal education was finished, his practical education was just beginning,” Zale said of his father. 

M.B. moved to the oil boomtown of Wichita Falls to work for his uncle Sam Kruger’s jewelry business there and in neighboring Burkburnett. He eventually decided to go out on his own, renting a counter at a drugstore in Graham — the seat of Young County, located 87.5 miles northwest of Fort Worth. The only Jew in town, young Morris Zalefsky was forced, through intimidation by the KKK, to flee Graham, Texas. Nevertheless, that short-lived business experience was “was like getting a degree from Harvard, Yale and Oxford all rolled into one,” M.B. would say. It was around this time that M.B. officially changed his surname from Zalefsky to Zale.

In the early 20th century, jewelry could only be purchased by the wealthy. M.B. had a vision of making jewelry available to working-class people by offering credit plans. In 1924, M.B. founded Zales Jewelers with a single location in Wichita Falls, along with his brother, William Zale. A few years later, his brother-in-law, Ben Lipshy, joined the team and became an important figure in the company and, later, a mentor to Donald.

By utilizing bold advertising techniques and by offering exceptional value and credit to customers, M.B. made jewelry accessible to the common man, which led to the dramatic growth of the jewelry business around the country. When the company was sold 62 years later, they had approximately 1,600 locations — throughout the United States and internationally.

M.B. married Edna Lipshy of Fort Worth in 1926 and they were married for 69 years until his passing. The M.B. & Edna Zale Foundation, based in Dallas, continues their legacy of philanthropy.

M.B. lived through some turbulent times in American history and persevered through them all. He kept Zales Jewelers afloat during the Great Depression through discipline, resilience, and shrewd business sense. It was also during that time that M.B. and Edna Zale had their third child, Donald, in 1933. After the Depression, business recovered and Zales Jewelers continued to prosper and expand and the book highlights some of M.B.’s timeless business philosophies. 

Despite his enormous accomplishments in revolutionizing jewelry retailing, M.B. remained modest. He always kept in mind his customers and employees, fully understanding that it was a collaborative effort. “The merchandise is easily replaced, but if you lose your customers, or your best workers, you’re finished,” M.B. said. “That’s the reason I kept insisting the company was built by all our people putting together all their effort.”

The family moved to Dallas in 1946, so M.B. would have easier access to travel for his frequent business trips to the East Coast. Donald graduated from Highland Park High School. He vividly remembers being a teenager in a meeting between M.B. and Jewish community leaders from Dallas, in which M.B. pledged to help the fledgling nation of Israel start a diamond industry — something that contributes significantly to Israel’s economy to this day.

M.B. and Edna lived modestly. By the 1970s, they were millionaires many times over and their children asked them what they like for their 50th anniversary. Edna asked for a washer and dryer, so she wouldn’t need to walk to another location in their building to do laundry.

“My parents lived a very simple life,” Donald Zale said. “They were dedicated to family, business and the Jewish community. My father drove an old Chevrolet. I tried to buy him a Mercedes-Benz once. He gave it back to me after three days and said he wanted his old Chevy.” They never forgot where they came from and always looked to give back. 

Donald’s life

Although undoubtedly a tribute to M.B., the book is inextricably linked to Donald’s own experiences — in business, life, and philanthropy. Lewin manages to capture Zale’s straightforward, smart and charmingly folksy ability to tell a good story, while making readers smile or laugh.

Donald attended Texas A&M University (TAMU) in College Station, where he was a member of the Corps of Cadets. He came home from Aggieland, because his mother was ill, and completed his bachelor’s degree at Southern Methodist University.

Donald is still passionate about A&M. He received an honorary doctorate and earned his coveted Aggie Ring at age 80. He has donated generously to the university, played a key role in starting A&M’s Center for Retailing Studies, regularly communicates with TAMU top administrators and attends Aggie football games at Kyle Field. He was instrumental, along with fellow Aggie and Dallasite Gerald Ray, in creating the new Jewish Studies Program at Texas A&M. A launch for the program was held Nov. 6 and it will debut in spring 2024.

As he rose through the ranks at Zales, Donald watched the company diversify tremendously at one point and then refocus solely on jewelry. He traveled the world — often on a moment’s notice. Zales would purchase diamonds directly from DeBeers, which helped them a great deal.

It was bittersweet when Zales was sold in 1986 following a hostile takeover. Donald wasn’t ready to step away from the business to which he’d devoted his life. But Zales was presented with an offer and it would have been a disservice to the shareholders — many of whom were Zales employees — if it hadn’t been accepted.

Thirty-seven years since the sale of Zales, Donald can still recite almost all the store locations by their corresponding store number.

Back in 1986, he responded to the sale by starting Newcourse Capital. It was Barbara’s idea, because the family was charting “a new course.” Post-Zales presented new opportunities for Donald, who partnered with his cousin, Bruce Lipshy, to start Zale Lipshy Hospital, which is now Zale Lipshy Pavilion–William P. Clements Jr. University Hospital at UT Southwestern Medical Center. He is still an honorary member of the UT Southwestern Medical Center President’s Advisory Board.

Among Donald’s philanthropic efforts were volunteering as a pilot for Angel Flight, in which he transported patients — at no charge — from homes, often in remote locations, to medical centers in Dallas or Houston.

Zale, when speaking to groups of students at A&M — or pretty much anyone — has nine words to live by: “Be proud of yourself, love your work, give back.”

“I am the luckiest guy who ever lived,” Zale said. “My kids are fully present in my life. They guide me with love and wisdom. I enjoy everything they tell me to do. I am so fortunate to have a great family.”

To order a copy of “Nobody Gets Hurt at the Office,” email
dz@donaldzale.com.

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  1. Walter Mendillo

    I
    I enjoyed working for the Zale Corporation.
    In 1976 , I was attending my first meeting in the Corporate Office in Irving Texas. I was so fortunate to sit at dinner with MB. I was always remember his following words he said to me.”we could loose all our assets, but as long as we kept our people, we can build it back” . I loved this company.

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