Downtown Wheaton shopkeeper remembered for doing things his own way

The corner shop in downtown Wheaton stood frozen in time.

Nearly every inch of the store seemed packed with inventory, eccentric ties, old sports memorabilia, offbeat merchandise you wouldn't find at big-box retailers.

While the downtown landscape evolved over the years, Robert Sandberg's men's clothing store remained virtually, and sometimes defiantly, unchanged.

"He enjoyed all his customers," his wife, Karen, said. "A lot of people came into the store just to talk to him."

A longtime shopkeeper, Sandberg died as a result of injuries he suffered in a car crash earlier this month in Wheaton. He was 82.

Sandberg started his business in 1958 on Hale Street in Wheaton. His store's longevity made him a prominent figure.

He also was in the public eye because of legal disputes with the city over the condition of his downtown properties.

Growing up in Geneva, Sandberg got his start in the tailoring business working at Erday's, a clothing store in that city's downtown, before opening his own shop, his daughter said.

"I know he liked doing weddings and tailoring suits to make them fit each individual," Marlisa Swaney said.

She remembers riding her bike downtown with her friends and heading to two fixtures: the Little Popcorn Store and then her father's namesake shop.

"He loved seeing us and all my friends grow up," Swaney said.

For decades, Sandberg's store occupied a prime retail spot in a two-story building at the northwest corner of Front and Main streets.

In 1986, the city sued to condemn the property. The case went all the way to the Illinois Supreme Court, which ruled in Sandberg's favor in 1992.

Other disputes began when the city cited him for code violations. The city successfully used condemnation proceedings to acquire Sandberg's vacant buildings at 109 N. Main St. and 111 N. Main St. for redevelopment.

Sandberg over the years defended his record as a businessman and landlord.

"It's sad, and this is America," Sandberg said in 2000. "I've had family that have laid their lives down for the right to own property."

Since his death, flowers have been left outside the clothing business.

His wife said Thursday it's too soon to say what will happen to the building.

"While I understand the community interest in the development of Mr. Sandburg's building, at this time it is important to give the family time to grieve their loss," Downtown Wheaton Association Executive Director Elle Withall said in a statement. "When the family is ready to move forward with a decision on the property the DWA will be here to offer any assistance we can to ensure the best use for the development of downtown Wheaton."

Sandberg died last weekend, about 10 days after the two-vehicle crash on Geneva Road, roughly 200 feet east of Main Street. According to a preliminary investigation, Sandberg was a passenger in a vehicle that failed to yield to traffic exiting the Jewel shopping center private drive, Deputy Police Chief P.J. Youker said.

The driver of the vehicle with Sandberg and the other driver also were injured.

Sandberg's daughter thanked Wheaton firefighters who pulled him from the crash, rushed him to the hospital and gave his family 10 days to say goodbye while he remained in a coma.

"These last 10 days were the most difficult in my life," Swaney said.

A sports fan, Sandberg had vitality and high energy even as he worked into his 80s, his daughter said.

"He's supposed to be here right now," she said.

Sandberg and his wife would have been married 53 years in August. He's also survived by his two grandchildren.

A visitation will be held from 10 to 11 a.m. Saturday at Hultgren Funeral Home, 304 N. Main St., Wheaton, followed by a funeral service at 11 a.m. Only 50 attendees are allowed at any given time because of COVID-19 safety protocols. For those unable to attend, a livestream will be available on the funeral home's website.

Memorial donations can be sent to Friends of DuPage County Animal Care and Control, 120 N County Farm Road, Wheaton.

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