Owner of Wheaton's Little Popcorn Store leaves big legacy
Bill Wakefield had many passions, but there were perhaps three that truly defined him.
First, there was the Little Popcorn Store on Front Street in downtown Wheaton, a tiny shop squeezed between two buildings that he and his sister, Donna, purchased in 1979.
Ask anybody and they'll tell you the shop, which will celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2021, is an icon of the central business district -- the kind of place that attracts generations of customers; the kind of place where folks come to take pictures of new babies and wedding parties; the kind of place where everyone feels welcome.
Second, he was an outgoing guy who loved to chat. Whether he was greeting customers or taking a break at a table across the street, he always was ready to strike up a conversation -- and few knew more about what was going on in downtown.
Third, and this may be most important, he absolutely loved the music of the Grateful Dead. He went to his first Dead concert in 1970, maybe 1971, and he was hooked. He followed the band around the United States and even traveled to Europe several times to watch them perform.
So it's no surprise that when he came home from the hospital a couple weeks ago, when he knew his time was short, he treated hospice the way it is meant to be treated, Donna Wakefield said.
For eight days, he was surrounded by friends and the music -- the Grateful Dead music -- never stopped.
"It was a party," Donna said. "He went out his way."
He was 67 when he died Sunday, but his legacy and his shop will live on, Donna said Tuesday.
"Everybody loved him," she said. "He went out of his way to help everyone. He was a great mentor for all of our young employees."
Bill didn't want a funeral, she said, but he did want a "celebration of life" that friends and family hope to hold soon along Front Street.
Donna says she'll keep the shop open and maintain the family feel that has been the secret of its long and successful run.
Customers talk about how their parents or even grandparents first brought them there and how regular visits to the shop have become a family tradition. Others talk about how they would drive to Wheaton from Chicago on a Sunday afternoon just to buy popcorn or penny candy. Still others talk about how they used the popcorn as an edible packing material for care packages they would send to our troops overseas.
Paula Barrington, executive director of the Downtown Wheaton Association, remembers Bill as "a very sweet man who loved what he did and enjoyed being a part of downtown Wheaton."
In addition to the Grateful Dead, he enjoyed jazz and regularly vacationed in New Orleans.
But he always came home to Wheaton where you could find him making another batch of fresh popcorn. And his eyes would always light up when kids walked in the door.
"Bill felt very strongly that the shop is an important part of downtown," Barrington said.
Jodie Schillinger, the manager of Graham's Fine Chocolates & Ice Cream just down the street, says she knew Bill for 19 years.
When she thinks of him, she will remember a kind and calm man standing outside his business talking to his customers.
"Everybody knows the popcorn shop and that little red door," she said. "He was super awesome and he will really, really, really be missed."
In lieu of flowers, Wakefield asked that gifts be directed to DuPagePads or the New Orleans Musicians' Clinic.