HOUSTON (RNS) — Jim “Mattress Mack” McIngvale was kicking himself the morning after Hurricane Harvey made landfall, for closing his furniture stores while some people could still shop.
Known to millions in America’s fourth-largest city because he stars in his own zany television commercials, McIngvale had closed all three of his Gallery Furniture locations on Aug. 26.
“A lot of these small retailers up and down the street were open, and they were doing a lot of business,” said the fast-talking entrepreneur, whose antics have included promising to refund customers’ money if the Astros win this year's World Series.
Little did McIngvale know that Houston quickly would become a disaster zone — and that he, driven by his faith, would emerge as one of the battered city’s most beloved heroes.
On the Sunday after the storm hit land, the 66-year-old entrepreneur rose early to attend Mass at Houston’s Assumption Catholic Church.
But he couldn’t get out of his driveway. The storm that would dump a record-breaking 50-plus inches of rain on the Bayou City had him blocked in. He was stuck at his house for three hours before he could leave.
The flooded cars on the freeway made him realize the extent of the disaster, as did the "hundreds of calls and emails and texts of people wanting us to rescue them” that greeted him at his original Gallery Furniture location.
When he settled into the store, McIngvale — who can display both his cantankerous and compassionate natures nearly simultaneously — pivoted from selling furniture to rescuing and housing fellow Texans trapped by floodwaters.
His faith, he said, moved him to help.
“My faith defines me. It’s who I am," he said. "How am I going to let my people drown? It’s as simple as that. I’m not going to let my people drown.”
McIngvale dispatched Gallery Furniture trucks to pick up victims. He opened his stores as emergency shelters, offering food, mattresses and clean restrooms to hundreds of evacuees and Texas Army National Guard troops.
He turned his stores into collection sites for disaster relief items, posted a “Pray for Texas” video on his Facebook page that received nearly 3.9 million views, and garnered heartfelt thanks and lifelong customers.
“Just to open his doors and say, ‘Hey, I don’t care what your situation is; you’ve got a place to stay here,’ I thought it was unbelievable,” said Tim Blythe, a Houston oil company sales representative. “He is just an inspiration, and my family will buy all of our furniture from Gallery Furniture from now on. There is no doubt about it.”
Fans of McIngvale launched a Change.org petition that has amassed nearly 200,000 signatures. The petition describes him as “a Houston icon that deserves to be remembered forever” and seeks to declare a “Mattress Mack Day” in Houston.
A boat from the Cajun Navy — an ad hoc search and rescue group — picked up Gwen Fay and her two dogs, Abby and Sam, as floodwaters rose in her house. As Fay began her rebuilding effort, she came to Gallery Furniture to get the receipts her insurance company needed for the dining room set, bedroom furniture and other items she purchased from McIngvale during the last 20 years.
“The spirit of Houston is embodied in him,” Fay said. “He has always been very generous, just kindhearted.
“To open up your store to evacuees,” she said, pausing to reflect, “I would buy everything that I lost back from him.”
Dave Gibbs, an elder of Grace Crossing Church in Conroe, Texas, north of Houston, said McIngvale’s response to Harvey was “just a day in the life of Mattress Mack — nothing out of the ordinary.”
Gibbs said he witnessed a friend of his tell McIngvale about a charity golf tournament that would benefit a Christian humanitarian aid organization. McIngvale immediately pulled $200 out of his wallet and handed it to Gibbs’ friend.
“No receipt, no acknowledgment, no advertising — just man-to-man, he hands him the money,” Gibbs said. “That’s the kind of guy Mack is.”
Fielding questions from RNS, McIngvale interrupted himself to bark at salespeople to answer the phones, but also to offer cash for lunch to a volunteer crew going to clean out a Harvey victim’s flooded home.
“You’re a saint,” he said when the crew leader declined the money.
The man replied that McIngvale was the real saint.
Mattress Mack laughed mischievously and brushed aside the praise. “No, I’m a devil,” he said.
McIngvale’s stores feature large U.S. flags and prominently display inspirational messages such as “You can preach a better sermon with your life than with your lips” and “What you are is God’s gift to you, what you make of yourself is your gift to God.”
A framed article behind the counter where he greets customers has the headline “To pray, to preach, to bless.” That’s the motto, he explains, of the Dominican Order priests and nuns who taught him at Bishop Lynch High School in Dallas, where his family moved after he was born in Mississippi.
The three Gallery Furniture stores employ a total of 400 men and women. On his Facebook page, McIngvale notes he entered the furniture business after his boss at a convenience store “did him a huge favor one day” and fired him.
In the wake of Harvey, McIngvale said he has seen God at work.
“The best thing about this whole tragedy is the people helping each other and putting all of the left-wing and right-wing politics aside and caring about people, not about politics,” he said.
McIngvale believes Houston's struggle will strengthen its spirit.
“This tremendous flood of biblical proportions brought this entire city together, and people aren’t fighting and bickering; they’re working with each other and opening the door for each other."
Houstonians are acting the way Pope John Paul II had inspired people to act, he added.
"They’re loving each other. That’s the way it ought to be all the time.”