About John William Pope

Founder, John William Pope Foundation

"Self-reliance, self-confidence, and integrity are the keys to success. Endurance is also critical, and the responsibility for success lies on the shoulders of the individual."
John William Pope

John William Pope, Sr. was born in 1924 in Angier, North Carolina. He got his first taste of the retail business as a young man working the cash register in his father’s five and dime store in the depression era. It was a humble beginning for a man who would one day buy the business and grow it into Variety Wholesalers Inc. His business acumen lives on through the company today – a network of variety retail stores serving 300+ communities in 17 states.

But as a teenager, John wasn’t ready to join the family business. After graduating high school in the spring of 1940, he packed his bags for the 30-mile trip north to Chapel Hill. He became the first member of his family to attend college. In 1943, with his degree only half complete, John joined the WWII effort, becoming an officer in the United States Air Force. After returning from a two-year deployment, he graduated from UNC with a bachelor’s degree in commerce in 1947.

In a booming post-war economy, the world seemed like a giant oyster for an ambitious young businessman. While managing the Warwick Hotel and Coffee Shoppe in Lillington, North Carolina, John began manufacturing mop heads as a side business. It was an endeavor that would provide valuable lessons for his future in retail. In 1949, newly married to his wife Joyce Wilkins, John officially took over his father’s five discount-variety stores in Fuquay Springs.

During the 1950s, John and Joyce had three children (John Jr., Amanda, and James “Art”). And while raising small children, John made time to expand the family business significantly. Between 1956 and 1971, Variety Wholesalers grew from 14 stores to nearly 50 stores. During the same period, sales grew from just over $1 million to $6 million.

“There was no written business plan,” John said. “I simply did what I had to do every day to succeed. I just put one foot in front of the other every day.”

At the dawn of the 1980s, Variety Wholesalers’ exceptional growth continued with 228 stores and a position as the largest privately-owned variety retail store chain in the southeast. But he occasionally lamented the challenges that growth brought to his business.

“Today, I guess there are a hundred of our stores I’ve never visited. And the way things are done today is so different. We literally operate these days – all of us – on computer printouts. I’ve always been people-oriented, and I do tend to miss my associations with Store Managers and other people I regarded as at least as important as I am to our business success,” said John in a 1982 interview with North Carolina magazine.

John remained acutely aware of the elements that supported his success as his business continued to grow – his hard work, access to higher education, and the opportunities afforded to him through the free enterprise system. Together, John and Joyce shared a passion for these principles and felt a strong obligation to give back to the home state that gave them so much.

In 1986, John and Joyce formed the John William Pope Foundation as a family grantmaking endeavor with the profits from his business. His goal was succinct — to protect and advance the liberties of North Carolinians, so that future generations had opportunities similar to his own. Ultimately that is the freedom to create wealth for the benefit of all. John believed in the truths outlined in Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest” (Volume I, Book I, Chapter Two).

But John wasn’t content to be a disengaged donor. John and his son Art founded two leading North Carolina think tanks – the John Locke Foundation in 1990 and the Civitas Institute in 2005. He was also a key figure in the establishment of the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal (formerly the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy) in 2003.  

 The strong sense of civic duty that led him to support public policy research also led him to serve on many boards and committees, charitable and business alike. Some of those roles included Chairman of the North Carolina Merchants Association, board member of the Association of General Merchandise Chains, two term-member of the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees, President and Director of the UNC Educational Foundation (Rams Club), member of the Presidential Board of Advisors at Campbell University, and founding sponsor of the Duke Children’s Classic.   

 As his resume indicates, John’s enthusiasm for UNC-Chapel Hill did not wane with the years. John was an avid supporter of the school, from athletics to academics. And both before and after his death, the Foundation made significant grants to UNC-Chapel Hill in recognition of the school’s essential contributions to the state.

 In 1997, the Variety Wholesalers expanded when it acquired Roses stores (founded in Henderson, North Carolina). Roses had recently emerged from bankruptcy protection. At the time of the acquisition, Art Pope served as the company’s Chief Financial Officer, helping oversee the rapidly expanding business and bringing the stores to profitability.

 John continued his involvement with business, civic, and public policy until his death in 2006. After his passing, Art stepped into leadership as both the Chairman of the Pope Foundation and the President and Chairman of Variety Wholesalers, Inc. Through his work, he continues his father’s legacy of entrepreneurship and passion for small-government principles.

To the day he passed away, John believed that hard work was the key to success. “If you love what you are doing, are willing to take risks to accomplish your goals, have the support of your family and good people working with you, then you can be a successful entrepreneur whether you are in your twenties or your seventies or eighties,” said John Pope.