GRAFTON — Back in the days before big-box grocery store chains, local grocery stores were often a center of life in small towns. And Walter Wildenheim was at the center of that center of life in Grafton for many years as owner of the Grafton Food Center, later the Grafton Sparkle Market.
Wildenheim died Saturday at Renaissance Health Center in Olmsted Falls. He was 93. His wife, Doris, said she was grateful for the attention Sunday but wasn’t ready to talk.
Tammy Koleski remembers working at Sparkle in high school. Wildenheim’s son, David, had taken over the operations of the store by then, but Wildenheim was often on hand.
“Wally was always there with a smile,” she said. “He was just a lighthearted, caring man. He had such a zest for life. Everyone always had the utmost respect for him. He treated the employees like family.”
Wildenheim was born in Grafton in 1917 to Bruno and Bertha Wildenheim. Except for his World War II service from 1942 to 1945, during which he earned 17 battle stars and worked as an early warning radar operator in the Signal Corps, Grafton was his home.
During high school, Wildenheim got into the grocery business, working at Volunteer Food Store in Grafton for his half-brother, Alex Schwed, later driving the store’s delivery truck.
Wildenheim and his wife, the former Doris Palmer of Wellington, were married in 1941. He was drafted in 1942.
Following the war, Wildenheim returned to the grocery business when he and Doris bought the grocery department of the Volunteer Food Store in 1946. In 1952, they went into business with the William Finley family to establish the Grafton Food Center. That later became the Grafton Sparkle Market.
“It’s like ‘Cheers,’ ” Koleski said. “Everybody knows your name.”
Community mattered to Wildenheim. He joined the Kiwanis Club in 1946, and served as his club’s 10th president in his 60 years with the organization.
It was a rite of passage for many Grafton teens to get their first job at Sparkle, Koleski said. High school kids worked as baggers. The Wildenheims were flexible about working around school and sports, she said. But they also expected an honest day’s work in return.
“When you’re 16, your social world is your friends,” Koleski said. “But when you worked at the Sparkle, you got to know adults and learned to treat them with respect. You learned to smile and be nice to the customers, and to always take care of the elderly customers.”
Wildenheim retired in 1985, but, as Koleski said, often showed up at the store. She returned to work there in her late 20s, working as an evening manager.
“It was a good place to work and a good place to learn,” Koleski said. “Working there gave me management skills.”
Today, Koleski works as a Realtor.
Koleski said the store was the sort of place where you’d see multiple generations of a family shopping or working.
“There was one family, the dad stocked the shelves, the mom was a cashier and the teenaged daughter was a bagger,” she said. “If people stopped working there, it was because they went to college or got married or something like that. Nobody ever left because they weren’t happy there.”
Wildenheim and his wife traveled around the United States and Canada in their RV. He loved woodworking, and carved miniature carousel horses, displaying his works at parks and museums. He also built birdhouses and was an avid Cleveland Indians fan.
In addition to his wife and son, Wildenheim is survived by three grandchildren, a sister, and nieces and nephews.
Calling hours are 2 to 4 p.m. and 6 to 8 p.m. on Tuesday at Blackburn-Duke Funeral Home, 1021 Main St., Grafton. The funeral will be at the funeral home at 10 a.m. Wednesday, followed by burial at Resthaven Cemetery in Avon.
The family has asked that donations in his memory be made to the Grafton-Midview Public Library or the Grafton United Methodist Church.
Contact Melissa Hebert at 329-7129 or firstname.lastname@example.org.