Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Hurleys look forward to retirement

CUSHMAN — Finally, the phone has stopped ringing day and night.

Sam and Mary Jo Hurley recently sold their liquid petroleum gas company, Hurley’s Gas, to Heritage Propane, a division of Titan Energy Co.

They were busy this week helping with the transition and, in their spare time, taking photos and country artifacts off the log walls of their office building. They’re keeping the building and property, and Heritage is working to move all the LP gas tanks and trucks to a Batesville location which will serve as its local headquarters.

“Christmas days, I guess I’ve worked all of them,” Sam said. “Not all day. Sometimes all day. Usually, just part of the day.”

“Somebody would always call on Christmas and Thanksgiving,” Mary Jo said. “They’d be out of gas.”

The same went for nights and weekends, since the business phone rang in at their home.

The Hurleys started the business in 1985 after Sam had spent 24 years working for another gas company. Knowing the business well, he decided to strike out on his own.

“I started out with nothing,” he said. “I didn’t have a gas customer.”

But, he said, being in his hometown of Cushman, “I knew everybody and everybody knew me. I built a little log building for an office.

“I didn’t even have a phone number (listed) for six months.”

Sam said Jimmy Hughes, then production manager for the Batesville Daily Guard, told him, “When you get your truck, come on down by the Guard office and we’ll take a picture and get you some publicity.”

“That little piece in the Guard kept us in business,” he said, until after the next telephone directory came out.

Business just kept picking up. The Hurleys expanded the building twice and had at least 5,000 customers in four counties when they sold out.

Family members and others went to work for the company as it expanded to seven gas trucks and three service trucks. At one point, 14 family members were among the employees, the first ones being son Kenny Hurley and daughter Debbie Covington.

“All of our grandkids worked (here) during their growing up,” Mary Jo said. Some then went on to other careers. One, Kyle Covington, practically grew up in the office, she said.

Both Sam and Mary Jo were raised within a mile of Cushman. She went to college after Hurley Gas got under way and, after graduating, taught school at Cushman for more than 20 years.

Heritage is keeping all of Hurley’s employees, including family members, who want to stay.

Sam said he and Mary Jo decided to sell for a variety of reasons. One factor was getting a good offer for the business.

Another was the Department of Homeland Security’s continual issuing of new regulations, which made for more and more governmental red tape.

Expenses, as with all businesses, also continue to climb, which could make any business less profitable and, finally, Sam said, “As far as I know, we’re in good health now and we don’t need to work right up till we die.”

“We built us a good business,” Mary Jo said. “But everything comes to an end,” Sam added.

“The timing was right,” he said.

The two spent all of their lives around Cushman except for three years in Tulsa, Okla., right after they married. He worked for an oil field equipment company there and she worked for an insurance firm.

When the 1959 recession hit and Sam was laid off, they left Tulsa and came home. Sam admits he was a bit homesick.

“We didn’t like it. Too many people there for me,” he said.

Sam plans to spend more time taking care of his cattle and, in the summer, putting up hay.

“I enjoy that. It relaxes me to do that,” he said.

Mary Jo said she will do more canning and freezing garden produce and just enjoying the freedom of being outdoors.

“I like the country and I like the outdoors,” she said.

“She may have to drive a tractor this summer,” Sam said, grinning.

“I don’t know about that,” she said, looking at him pointedly.

Sam said he used to like to hunt and fish but hasn’t had the time for years. “I may wet a hook this summer,” he said.

“With this gas business, you never have any spare time — nights, weekends, Sundays, there’s always something going on.”

And every time something was going on, well, that ringing sound was the telephone again.

They may travel a bit as they become accustomed to having some time of their own. They had only three vacations in the past 23 years, but enjoyed them, Sam said, listing some of the places they went — Yellowstone Park, the Black Hills and Pike’s Peak on one trip, and to California on another.

For now, though, the couple plans to just be homebodies and maybe spend a little extra time with their first great-grandchild.

Mary Jo’s even got a new apron to use for one of the things she enjoys most — cooking.

“I’m a country girl. Wayne Stout sent me an apron the other day. It’s made of denim. I like to cook and I like to play the piano. I play the piano at church.”

Sam said he’s been asked to grow some sugar cane and make molasses this fall. “I doubt if I do that.” But, he said, “I might.”

When he was a teenager, he worked in the Cushman manganese mines and enjoys telling mining stories.

His folks also had him doing migrant work, picking cotton in south Arkansas, tomatoes in Indiana and working with various crops, including asparagus, in Michigan.

But now, it’s time to relax a little.

“We’ve been tied down for so many years, we won’t know what it’s like to be footloose,” Mary Jo said.