Arthur Gochman, who built Academy Sports into one of the nation's leading sporting goods chains, died of a heart attack Monday. He was a successful lawyer early in his career specializing in civil rights and antitrust. In midlife, he entered the retail business, culminating in the creation of Academy Sports + Outdoors, which has 125 stores in 11 states. He was 79.
He was born January 18, 1931 in Brooklyn, New York to Shirley and Max Gochman, Jewish immigrants from England and Russia, respectively, according to an obituary in the Houston Chronicle. In 1938, seeking greater opportunities, the family moved to San Antonio. In that year, Max Gochman started a small used tire store on South Flores Street. Because the store was across the street from St. Henry's Academy, a Catholic school, Max Gochman named the store “Academy Tire Shop.” The next year, war broke out in Europe, and rubber tires became unavailable. Max Gochman converted the tire shop into an army-navy store, “Academy Surplus.”
After graduating from Trinity University in San Antonio in 1951, Arthur Gochman enrolled in the University of Texas School of Law. Described a “lackluster student” in high school and college, Arthur Gochman excelled in law school, writing for the Texas Law Review and graduating near the top of his class. Upon graduating in 1954, he served in the US Army, primarily in Germany. As he was finishing up his military service, his father implored him to join Academy Surplus, which Max Gochman had relocated to Austin in the early 50s. Max Gochman eventually owned four stores, all in Austin.
Arthur Gochman decided on a career in the law instead, and returned to San Antonio, where he practiced trial law until 1979, according to the Houston Chronicle. While he tried a variety of cases, his specialties were antitrust and civil rights. Arthur was also active in the civil rights community. In the 1950s and 1960s, he helped desegregate a number of establishments, including the restaurant at Joske's Department Store, one of the poshest in town.
In 1970, Walter McAllister was San Antonio's mayor as well as a major shareholder in the city's largest savings and loan, San Antonio Savings. On national television, McAllister said that his bank did not make a lot of loans to Mexican-Americans because of their poor work ethic. A firestorm erupted, with protesters picketing outside of San Antonio Savings' offices. The police arrested protesters, including G. J. Sutton and County Commissioner Albert Pena, Jr. and Arthur and held the group in jail for several hours. They were released without being charged.
But it was in the courtroom that Arthur Gochman made his biggest impact in civil rights.
Texas did not allow military personnel serving in the state to vote. Arthur Gochman filed suit, and the US Supreme Court eventually heard the case. In a unanimous decision, the Court ruled the Texas law unconstitutional.
Of far greater import was a case Arthur Gochman filed in 1968. Representing parents of poor Latino school children, Arthur Gochman filed Rodriquez v. San Antonio Independent School District. Texas, like 47 other states, has historically paid for public education through property taxes. This mechanism has often resulted in gross disparities in funding between rich and poor school districts. In 1968, for example, the Edgewood School District in San Antonio's impoverished west side annually spent half as much money per student as Alamo Heights, a rich district on the city's north side. Per student, Alamo Heights had over nine times the taxable property value of Edgewood.
Relying on the 14th Amendment's Equal Protection clause, Arthur Gochman argued that while education was not guaranteed by the Constitution, once government agreed to pay for educating children, it could not do so with a system that funded education at radically different levels. By the time the case reached the United States Supreme Court, the court's composition had changed. Arthur Gochman argued against legendary constitutional law expert, Charles Alan Wright. Observers said that Arthur Gochman made the better oral argument, but in a 5-4 decision, the Court ruled that while the system was indeed unfair, it was not unconstitutional. After the ruling, Justice William O. Douglas wrote Arthur that in his 37 years on the Supreme Court, Rodriguez ranked among the decisions that most disappointed him. To this day, Rodriguez is among the most cited cases in classes on constitutional law.
Arthur Gochman's daughter Molly told the Chronicle that while most people knew Arthur Gochman for his contributions to law or politics or business, “he was, most of all, a wonderful father who always put his children first. He was the most selfless, loving man I've ever known. A friend of his told me that he was `the kindest man I ever met.' He was quiet, generous, and funny. He touched many people in beautiful ways.”
In 1970, Arthur Gochman bought Southern Sales, six army surplus stores in Houston that were much like his father's in Austin. He closed two and renamed the remaining four “Academy Surplus.” His theory was that because Houston was home to many University of Texas alumni, people who had shopped Max's stores as students in Austin would recognize the name and continue to shop them in Houston. Sales in 1973 were around $1 million. For the first few years of Academy's operation, he continued to practice law in San Antonio until 1978.
In the late 1970s, because of mounting debt, he gave up his law practice and moved his family from San Antonio to Houston to manage the company on a daily basis. At one point, he took the proceeds from the sale of his San Antonio home and used it to pay off overdue inventory. In the 1980s, Academy gradually switched its inventory mix from military surplus to sporting goods. Academy eventually changed its name to “Academy Sports + Outdoors” and emphasized a focus on heavy sales and low prices.
In the late 1980s, he began centralized distribution, a system by which Academy shipped inventory to its stores everyday from its warehouse in Katy. In 1986, Academy adopted an EDLP (EveryDay Low Pricing) policy.
By 1990 Academy had grown to 18 stores and jumped to 34 by 1995, the year it opened its first doors outside Texas. They were in Edmond, OK in June 1994 and Layette, LA in November 1994.
In 1995 David Gochman, his son, joined Academy on a full-time basis and by 1997 succeeded his father as CEO and president. By that time, Arthur Gochman, then 65, had built Academy into a $350 million retail chain. Today, Academy has 125 stores with $2.4 billion in sales.
“My father was born poor and in the Depression,” David Gochman told the Chronicle, “and those two facts informed his every important decision. Academy still benefits from that frugal philosophy.”
His daughter, Molly, serves on the board of directors and is also active with the company.
Arthur Gochman remained active in the company in various roles up to the time of his death. His death followed a long struggle with heart disease.
Arthur Gochman was married and divorced twice. He is survived by his wife, Larisa Sumtsova, two children, Molly Gochman and David Gochman, his daughter-in-law, Becky Nordgren Gochman and two grandchildren, Sophie and Mimi Gochman.
In lieu of flowers, the family requests that contributions be made to Teach for America.
Donations can be made in Arthur's name to Teach for America in two ways:
1. Online – Donors can go tohttp://www.teachforamerica.org/donors/ and click on DonateNow. At the bottom of DonorInformation, the donor shouldcheck the “This donation is inmemory of someone special” box and enter Arthur's name.
2. By Mail – Donors can mail a check along with a note or memo indicating it is in memory of Arthur to: Teach For America Development 4669 Southwest Freeway Suite 600 Houston, TX 77027
A private memorial service is planned for November.