Bernie Appel, RadioShack leader, renowned retailer, dies at 85

Bernie Appel 

‘Mister RadioShack’ dies at 85

Bernie S. Appel, 85, a key component to RadioShack’s success in its heyday and a longtime community leader, died April 2 after a long battle with congestive heart failure.

A master merchandiser and consumer-electronics innovator with a pugnacious style and quick wit, Appel was known as “Mister RadioShack,” a company he helped turn into a $2.3 billion chain with more than 7,000 stores.

“He was very smart, very well organized,” said John Roach, former Tandy Corp. and RadioShack CEO. “He led the people who worked for him very well. He was one of the keys of success for RadioShack from the time Charles Tandy bought it until the early 1990s.”

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Marvin Girouard, former CEO of Pier I Imports, a spinoff of the Tandy Corp., praised Appel for his civic involvement in Fort Worth and for his general demeanor on life.

“He was a real merchant,” said Girouard, who like Appel was a long-time buyer. “We were the Marco Polos of our companies, traveling abroad and looking for goods for the companies.”

Girouard said he felt and received great support from Appel when he became CEO of Pier 1.

“I never heard him say a bad word about anybody,” Girouard said.

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Appel was in charge of day-to-day operations at RadioShack in 1977 when it introduced a machine that would change the world, the desktop computer, the TRS-80. That was hardly Appel’s only impact on new technology. He was also on the successful team that took AT&T to the U.S. Supreme Court with a lawsuit that opened the door for retail stores to sell telephones. During his 34 years at RadioShack, Appel held every key position, culminating with his tenure at the top from 1984 to 1992, the heyday of the Fort Worth-based retail electronics chain.

“I had the greatest job in the world,” Appel often said, reflecting on the family atmosphere fostered at work, his mentors within the Tandy Corp., his 75 business trips to Asia and his myriad stopovers in Israel, where he advised startup companies and engaged in philanthropic endeavors.

Born in Dorchester, Massachusetts, Jan. 10, 1932, Beryl Schlama Appel was the youngest of four siblings. He began working at age 10, throwing newspapers and delivering groceries. The coins he earned went directly to his parents, Max and Sophie Appel, Russian Jewish immigrants who called him by his nickname, “Beri.”

As a member of the U.S. Coast Guard, Appel met Betty Tankleson. They married in 1955, moved to Boston and had two children, Arlene and Jerry.

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In 1959, shortly before graduating from Boston University, Appel applied for a job at RadioShack, then a Boston-based catalogue firm with three retail outlets, and was eventually hired.

When Charles Tandy of Fort Worth bought RadioShack in 1963, Appel was the company’s top buyer.

Promoted to merchandise manager in 1966, Appel began traveling three times a year to the Far East. With his sharp eye, he scoured Asian capitals and backwaters for electronic goods and gadgets at the right price. As he ventured into cultures far different than the streets of Boston, his etiquette adviser was New Yorker Elaine Yamagata, an American of Japanese descent who had lived in Japan and China. With her husband, she had co-founded A&A International, an import firm that Tandy acquired. Appel considered Yamagata, Tandy and Lewis Kornfeld, vice president of advertising at Tandy, his most influential mentors.

When Appel retired in 1994 as Tandy Corp. senior vice president and chairman of RadioShack, he launched Appel Associates, a private consulting firm with global reach. Both Forbes magazine and The New York Times reported on his retirement, crediting him with the rapid expansion of a consumer electronics firm far ahead of its time.

Among the many accolades he received in the business realm was his 2002 induction into the Consumer Electronics Hall of Fame, an institution whose honorees include Alexander Graham Bell. Appel served on the International Board of Visitors of Texas Christian University’s Neeley School of Business. He received an honorary doctorate in commercial science from McKenzie College and the 1994 Alumni Award from Boston University School of Management. He is listed in Who’s Who in Consumer Electronics, Who’s Who in Finance & Industry, Who’s Who in America and Who’s Who in the World.

In the civic and social sphere, he served on the board of Tarrant County’s Crime Prevention Resource Center and was president of Safe City Commission Crime Stoppers. He was a longtime member of the Masons, Tabernacle Lodge; Shrine, Moslah Lodge; Rotary Club of Fort Worth; Century II Club and Colonial Country Club. He served on the boards of Casa Manana and the Arts Council of Fort Worth and Tarrant County. In 1988, at a time when he was living alone and divorced, a friend at Ahavath Sholom fixed him up on a blind date with a cousin in Atlanta. Later that year, he married Ellen Carey, a fine arts photographer. The couple were regulars at the symphony, the ballet, the opera, Casa Manana and the Cliburn.

Appel’s twin passions were RadioShack and Israel. He received the Israel Bonds Star of David Award in 2007, New York City’s Defender of Jerusalem Award in 1990 and the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith Electronics & Appliances Division Torch of Liberty Award in 1988. He served on the advisory board of the Jewish Studies Program at the University of North Texas, worked for the creation of the Jewish Education Agency of Fort Worth and was president of the Jewish Federation of Fort Worth and Tarrant County. He served on the United Jewish Appeal Regional Financial Relations/Jewish Agency Committee; Project Renewal Cluster, Acco-East, Israel; the campaign cabinets of the UJA Southern, Southwestern and Western Region Campaign Cabinets; and the advisory board of the Business Network for Israel. He was a member of Fort Worth’s Beth-El Congregation. At the time he moved to Texas, he was founding vice president of Temple Aliyah, Needham, Massachusetts.

He is survived by his wife, Ellen Carey Appel, and his son and daughter.

Funeral was at Congregation Ahavath Sholom and burial was at Ahavath Sholom Hebrew Cemetery in Fort Worth. Memorials may be made to Congregation Ahavath Sholom or a favorite charity. – This report includes information from Fort Worth Jewish Archives and FWBP staff.