Gay McLawhorn Love, 90, matriarch of Atlanta’s Printpack

Gay McLawhorn Love took over as chairman of Atlanta’s Printpack company after the unexpected death of her husband, company founder and CEO Erskine Love. Gay Love was named a top-10 U.S. women business owner by Working Woman magazine in 1996.
Gay McLawhorn Love took over as chairman of Atlanta’s Printpack company after the unexpected death of her husband, company founder and CEO Erskine Love. Gay Love was named a top-10 U.S. women business owner by Working Woman magazine in 1996.

Took over company after husband’s death

Gay McLawhorn Love was known more for homemade cinnamon cookies than business acumen when her husband Erskine Love, founder and CEO of Atlanta-based Printpack Inc., died unexpectedly in 1987.

In a major life shift at age 57, the mother of six assumed chairmanship of the company’s board.

Raised on a Depression-era farm without indoor plumbing, she relied on the values of her upbringing to guide her decisions and role in the growing company. Love promoted a culture that solidified employee loyalty and saw profits soar.

In 1996, Working Woman magazine named her as one of the top 10 women business owners in the U.S.

Love, 90, died after a period of declining health at her Atlanta residence May 28. A funeral is planned for 2 p.m. June 16, the day she would have turned 91. The family-only service will be held at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, and live-streamed for the public at trinityatlanta.org.

Now one of the nation’s largest manufacturers of flexible and rigid packaging, Printpack had sales of $1.3 billion in 2018. In the first 15 years of Gay Love’s chairmanship, the company expanded from five to 25 sites, and sales increased sevenfold. While son Dennis Love took over the role of CEO, she got involved in the morale and lives of employees.

“She was the cultural touchstone of Printpack,” said son Jimmy Love, who became chairman and CEO when Dennis Love retired in 2016.

“It quickly became clear we had a matriarch,” said Brad Walker, who retired from Printpack after 38 years as a vice president and general manager. “I felt valued and needed, like I was a part of the family.”

Love was used to hard work. She was the second of four girls born in 1929 in Winterville, N.C., to a tobacco farmer and a former school teacher. They used an outhouse and a well, and were expected to work in the fields when school was not in session. Though she went on to Duke University, where she enjoyed musical theater and finally had an indoor bathroom, her family says she never lost the down-to-earth values of her upbringing.

“She didn’t mind getting her hands dirty,” said daughter Carol Anne Love Jennison of Richmond, Va. “She made her presence known at the company after my father’s death. She stepped up in a way that surprised all of us.”

Gay Love’s children watched the mom who drove them to tennis matches and baseball games transition into a regular at company meetings, conventions, service award dinners, and company golf tournaments. She travelled to all 25 Printpack plants, located in the U.S., Mexico, Europe, and China. Printpack has since sold all plants in areas other than the U.S. and Mexico.

Gay Love knew employees by name, visited their homes, and asked about their families. She stressed respect and dignity for workers of all levels and races. “She was taught early on to respect everyone, that everyone has value,” Jennison said.

Amid increasing business success, another tragedy struck. In 2003, son Bill, his wife Beth, and their 12-year-old daughter Sarah were killed in a plane crash during a vacation in Kenya. Also killed were 9 members of Beth Love’s family. As they had when Erskine Love died, family and employees looked to Gay Love for strength and direction.

“She modelled resilience,” said Walker. “We knew she was grieving, but she said we’re going to talk about Bill and Beth and Sarah. We’re going to say their names. She was strong.”

Jennison agreed. “We don’t understand why our lives take certain turns, but Mom was the example of ‘We’re going to keep moving forward.’”

Love summed up her beliefs in a Sunday School lesson in 2008: “I guess, in some ways, I have a very simple faith. I don’t believe that God makes bad things happen. I’m not even sure he that he makes good things happen. I think that God is a loving God and, because he loves us, he gave us life. So, life happens.”

Survivors include three sons in Atlanta — Dennis Love, Jimmy Love, and David Love — and Keith Love of Asheville, N.C.; daughter Carol Anne Love Jennison of Richmond, Va.; sisters Denyse Smith of Robersonville, N.C., and JoAnne Padgett of Atlanta. She was known as Gayma to her 20 surviving grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.

Memorials may be made to Trinity Presbyterian Church, Agape Youth and Family Center, Atlanta Mission, Center for Puppetry Arts, American Heart Association, or Emory University Goizueta Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center.