James Cash (J.C.) Penney, Jr. was born on September 16, 1875 in the small Caldwell County town of Hamilton, Missouri to James Cash Penney, Sr. and Mary Frances Paxton. His father was a notable member of the Hamilton community as a minister for the local Baptist church, farmer, and civic leader. J.C. Penney’s family eventually moved out West to the town of Longmont, Colorado. It was here that J.C. Penney began pursuing a life as a businessman and entrepreneur that would eventually develop into a prominent and successful career. In Longmont, Penney met his future wife, Berta Alva Hess, and they were married in Cheyenne, Wyoming on August 24, 1899. The couple had two sons, Roswell Kemper Penney (b. 1901) and James Cash Penney III (b. 1903). After establishing a successful store in Kemmerer, Wyoming in 1902, Penney decided it was time for a change of scenery. He wrote in his 1950 autobiography, “In 1909 things were moving in a way which seemed to warrant a new phase. I gave up managing the Kemmerer store personally and moved Mrs. Penney and the boys to Salt Lake City.”
Berta Penney was a devoted member of the Methodist Church and the blossoming Penney family’s new environment helped facilitate a connection to their new community. Penney wrote, “Our two boys were nearing the age when they should be going to Sunday School. Mrs. Penney and I sought out a church of her denomination, and the boys began going before long to the Sunday school of the First Methodist Church.” The Penney family began attending services at the First Methodist Church in Salt Lake City, then under the stewardship of Dr. Francis Burgette Short. Penney described him as “a forceful speaker and a man of striking appearance and personality, standing six foot four.” Shortly after the move to Salt Lake City, Berta Penney underwent a tonsillectomy procedure that unfortunately led to the development of pneumonia after traveling in the rain. The illness led to her tragic death on December 26, 1910. The passing of his wife devastated Penney, leaving him with two sons, in a new city, and with demanding business responsibilities.
The death of his wife deepened his involvement in the church. The First Methodist Church in Salt Lake City had been built and dedicated in May 1906 at the cost of approximately $80,000. The cost of the building, furniture, fixtures, organ, and grounds were covered for the most part by generous members of the church and community, yet at the time of the dedication, a $20,000 debt remained. Dr. Short, who assumed leadership of the Church in 1907, successfully acquired the remaining funds and paid off the indebtedness by 1912, the final $5,000 being donated by J.C. Penney in memory of his late wife. He noted in his autobiography that “a man’s duty was to support the church with money in addition to living in a conscientious and upright manner.” In 1914, Penney moved the headquarters of his company to New York City and later remarried, but his generous contribution to the Methodist community of Salt Lake City is held in highest regard to this day. One of the church towers of First United Methodist Church on 203 South 200 East in Salt Lake City is dedicated to Berta Penney and is designated with a plaque in her memory.