Ross Humphrey, co-owner of Rileys in downtown SLO, dies at 78

George Christensen, left, and Ross Humphrey get a laugh out of some of Rileys memorabilia in this 1987 photo.
George Christensen, left, and Ross Humphrey get a laugh out of some of Rileys memorabilia in this 1987 photo. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Ross Humphrey, who owned a landmark department store in downtown San Luis Obispo with his brother, died Jan. 12 in Atascadero.

Humphrey, 78, and his brother, Robert Humphrey of San Luis Obispo, owned Rileys Department Store, which had opened as Crocker Brothers in 1887 at Higuera and Garden streets.

At the turn of the 20th century, the store was renamed J. Crocker and Co. and later sold to D.J. Riley. In 1945, Riley sold the store to Ross Humphrey’s father, Coy C. Humphrey, and a partner.

The business moved to Chorro and Marsh streets 10 years later, and in 1966, Ross Humphrey became president of Rileys with his brother as vice president. 

The business closed in 1993.

“This is sad as hell, not only for us but for all the people who shop here,” Ross Humphrey told a Telegram-Tribune reporter on the store’s closing day.

Ross Humphrey was born in Illinois in 1935. His family later moved to Minnesota, where his brother was born, and then to San Luis Obispo in 1955.

Humphrey studied agricultural science at Cal Poly, received a business degree from San Jose State and then joined the family business, according to a biography provided by family members.

He married Sally L. McBride, and together they had three children, Kim, Bill and Ed. The family moved to Atascadero in 1970.

When the store moved to its final home at Chorro and Marsh streets, an advertisement from the store’s grand reopening extolled Rileys as “the finest department store between Los Angeles and San Jose … and the shopping center of the Central Coast area.”

Rileys also boasted a home furnishings department, and in the early 1970s opened branches in Arroyo Grande, Atascadero and Morro Bay.

Robert Humphrey said Friday that the brothers were a good team. 

“It worked very well for us,” he said. “We complemented each other’s skills well because he didn’t want to have to do anything with personnel, and I didn’t want to have anything to do with merchandising.”

Ross Humphrey said in 1987 that the store grew from earning $1 million in annual sales in 1966 to more than $10 million a year by the time it celebrated its centennial. The business employed 250 people.

That same year, the family sold the store to the Charles Ford Co. of Watsonville. After the store closed about five years later, the building was sold to Tom and Jim Copeland.

In retirement, Ross Humphrey played golf and traveled with wife Marilyn Pentz, whom he married in 2005.

A celebration of life will be held Friday from 2 to 4 p.m. in the former Rileys building at Chorro and Marsh streets.