CHARLESTON, W.Va. - On Dec. 3, 1996, Mike Fruth and his sisters Joan and Carol were working late at Fruth Pharmacy's main warehouse in Point Pleasant.
The siblings, children of company founder Jack Fruth, had sent their employees home to spend the evening with their families while they stayed behind, making preparations for the upcoming Christmas holiday.
Around 7 p.m., one of the warehouse's heaters caught fire. Mike, Joan and Carol tried to salvage everything they could, but the blaze was quickly out of control.
"At one point in time, my brother, Mike, had the presence of mind to tell my two sisters, 'We have to get out of here or we're going to burn up,' " said Lynne Fruth, now president of the company.
Lynne was at home with her infant son when she got the call.
"Somebody said the warehouse was on fire. I thought they meant a little building in Hurricane. But they said 'No, the big warehouse,' " she said.
It took three hours for six fire departments to extinguish the fire in the 10,000-square-foot warehouse, according to news reports at the time. When it was over, several firefighters had to be treated for heat exhaustion.
Although no one was seriously injured, the Fruth family worried the blaze would deal a fatal blow to the family business. The fire damaged about $1 million of merchandise but also destroyed all of Fruth's corporate offices, including the company's computer system and all of its important documents.
Lynne said the next morning an executive from Rite Aid called Jack Fruth. The pharmacy chain wanted to purchase Fruth Pharmacy for "a ridiculously high price."
"They didn't think we could survive the fire," she said.
The money was tempting. Jack asked Babs, his wife and longtime business partner, what to do. Together they decided, for the good of their many longtime employees, not to sell out.
Big bumps in the road
Jack Fruth was born in Mason County, the fourth child in a very poor family. As a boy he set his sights on a military career and, when he was old enough, enrolled at the Greenbrier Military School in Lewisburg. He dreamed of heading off to West Point and becoming an officer.
Those dreams were soon derailed, however. When he was 15, Jack came down with a bad case of the measles. He then contracted pneumonia and eventually lost his eyesight, ending any chance of a military career.
All was not lost. He visited a doctor in Charleston who, through a series of treatments, was able to restore some of his vision. Although he could not see well enough to attend West Point, his experiences left him with a profound interest in medicine.
Jack headed to Ohio State University, where he studied chemistry and eventually became a registered pharmacist. He opened the first Fruth Pharmacy in Point Pleasant in 1952. Business went so well he soon opened another location in downtown Point Pleasant, dubbing that store City Pharmacy.
The business was a family endeavor from the start. Lynne said when she was young, her mother would load down all five Fruth children with handbills advertising the pharmacies' big sales and then drive them into Point Pleasant.
"My mom would drop each of us off on a different street, then drive downtown and pick us up," she said.
Jack worked seven days a week and no matter what time of day or night was always available to his customers. There were no 24-hour pharmacies at the time, so he posted his name and home phone number on the front door.
"We'd get a call in the middle of the night. One of the kids got up and went to the store with Dad," Lynne said.
And whether it was a vaporizer for a sick child or a much-needed prescription for someone who had just left the emergency room, Jack would drive down, unlock the store and fill the customer's order, sometimes wearing pajamas.
A fire destroyed City Pharmacy in 1969. Because the business was not adequately insured, Jack's plans for expansion were put on hold. It would be another seven years before he opened a second Fruth Pharmacy. By the end of the 1970s, there were four stores in his burgeoning chain.
The next few decades brought even more growth, with 14 stores opening by the end of the 1980s and 22 locations by the end of the 1990s.
Frugal but generous
Although business was growing in leaps and bounds, Lynne said her father never figured out how to live large.
She said he never wore anything flashier than a watch and a wedding ring, and although his company eventually became a multi-million dollar business, he and Babs never moved from their modest Point Pleasant home.
"He didn't store his treasures in earthly vessels," Lynne said.
Jack preferred to invest in his employees and community.
Fruth Pharmacy set up scholarships for local children at a half-dozen universities in Ohio and West Virginia. The company also set up several more scholarships available only to children of employees.