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Sammy Williams, hardware merchant, civic leader, dies at age 93

Flossie and Sammy Williams at their wedding in 1950/ Flossie and Sammy Williams at their wedding in 1950/

Sammy Williams, a first generation American who took over his father's hardware store on Seventh Avenue and ran it for more than 40 years while also helping to house the poor and serve his community in other ways, died at Elizabeth House on Thursday after several weeks of declining health. He was 93.

 

For more than 40 years he gave away free popcorn and advice, opened the store after hours for plumbing emergencies and greeted friend and stranger alike with a wide smile.
Sammy WilliamsSammy WilliamsBorn Dec. 11, 1919, to Minnie and Louis Williams, both Polish immigrants, Samuel Williams (he had no middle name) came by a natural entrepreneurship through blood and direct observation. His father, he said in an interview last June, had come to the U.S. on board ship in 1907 and settled first near Galveston, Texas, where Louis had a brother. Louis Williams collected liquor bottles from a dry county and sold them to a distillery in a wet county next door that filled them again.
Williams moved from Texas to Detroit, where Sammy was born. He came south and ran a men's furnishings store on Pack Square in Asheville until he heard about a land boom in a little town next door called Hendersonville. Louis Williams bet on real estate just before the Laurel Park land bust of the mid 1920s.
"I guess we were fortunate because when the Depression started we were already broke," Sammy Williams said.
The father opened the salvage operation, machine shop and hardware store that became known as Louis Williams and Sons. Known for its service, Louis Williams & Sons became an institution under the management and friendly salesmanship of Sammy and his brother-in-law.
"Sammy was accommodating," said his friend and classmate Dr. William Lampley. "Anything you needed that he could possibly do, he'd do it. He'd take care of it."
At Hendersonville High School, Sammy was a member of the debate team, tennis team, French Club and Latin Club. He picked up languages easily, either through family, study or chance exposure. He soaked up Yiddish from his mother, who came from Poland and didn't speak English; he learned French when he was stationed in Lyons in the war; he took Spanish at Blue Ridge Community College. He spoke German. He remained an active member of the French Club at Lake Pointe Landing until his family moved him to hospice care five weeks ago.
Williams graduated from HHS in 1937 as salutatorian. Although he would like to have attended college, family obligations and World War II intervened.

CAM00900Sammy Williams in World War IIServing in the war, he survived a minor plane crash while testing a radio. Once he climbed on an Army-issued 1940 Indian motorcyle, wrecked and never drove one again. A member of the Signal Corps, Williams befriended a fellow GI named Morris Kaplan. After Williams showed Kaplan a photo of his sister, Kaplan and Anne Williams struck up a pen pal relationship. Back in the States after the war, Kaplan made his way to Hendersonville and courted Anne.
"I found out he had married my sister by the time I got home," Sammy said.

Instead of pursuing college himself, Sammy made money to send his brother, Jake, to college. Valedictorian at HHS, Jake attended the University of North Carolina.

"I think they didn’t have enough money for both of them," Danny said. "Jake went, and dad stayed and worked."

Although family members and friends said Sammy would have made a good lawyer — given his debating skill and facility with Latin — he would devote his life instead to selling hardware and tools, selling tank floats and power drills and serving the community.
Tradesmen, handymen and clueless homeowners alike found a friendly salesman in Williams, who knew every nut and bolt in the store and managed a shop that could fabricate whatever someone needed.
"They had a little shop next door that did all sorts of iron work," Lampley recalled. "Whatever I needed, they'd cut it and make it."
People knew they could rely on the hardware store at all hours when a plumbing disaster struck. One time he got a call in the middle of the night from an emergency room doctor at Pardee Hospital. "It seemed that a small boy had gotten a nut stuck on his finger and the doctor needed Sammy's help," a biographical sketch submitted to the HHS Hall of Fame said. Sammy arrived with a hacksaw and some files and helped remove the nut from the boy's finger.
Both his vocation and avocation were about helping others.
A founder of the Hendersonville Housing Authority and lifelong member of its board, Williams led efforts to provide affordable housing for poor people. In 2000, the Housing Authority dedicated the Sammy Williams Senior Center to honor his years of service to the authority. A longtime member of the morning Four Seasons Rotary Club, Williams was active in promoting Head Start, selling Christmas trees and volunteering. An active member and past president of the Agudas Israel synagogue, Williams planted trees in Israel and strongly supported B'nai B'rith.
Although he retired from fulltime work at Louis Williams in 1987, Williams spent time there regularly for 26 years longer up until five weeks ago. Seated in the back, he entertained friends, swapped stories and greeted everyone with a warm smile.
"He came in as a PR person, came in and made popcorn every day, he just didn't have as many responsibilities," Danny said. "The day he went to the hospital he had been in the shop because he came in on Tuesdays and Thursdays."
His doctor ordered tests. Then he went into the Elizabeth House. He had breathing problems but was not in pain and although he would at times doze off, he remained sharp to the end. Visits from friends "were like adrenalin," Danny said. He enjoyed seeing old friends for those weeks.
"He didn't miss a lick," Danny said. "We were there Monday night. He'd doze off. As far as being coherent, he was 100 percent. He didn't miss a lick."

Funeral arrangements

A funeral service will be held at Agudas Israel temple at 1:30 p.m. Sunday with burial to follow at the synagogue cemetery. Visitation is scheduled 4-7 p.m. Saturday at Thos. Shepherd & Son Funeral Service.

Williams was preceded in death by his wife of 59 years, Florence Kaplan "Flossie" Williams, who died on May 18, 2009, at age 86. The two met in 1950 in Washington. A cousin of Sammy Williams and a cousin of Flossie Kaplan fixed the two up on a blind date."They met at the Washington Zoo in front of the monkey cage," said his son, Danny Williams, who followed his father into the hardware business and manages the store today in its new location behind Cason Building Supply in East Flat Rock.

Besides Danny and his wife Deborah, Sammy Williams is survived by an elder son, movie sound man Sid Williams, and his wife, Susan; a daughter Sharon Williams Wooten, a business personal property appraiser; and grandchildren Jennifer Williams, Rebekah Williams and her husband, Gary Hearn, Melissa Wooten, Jennifer Wooten, Brad Wooten, Lauren Williams and Daniel Williams.