Willy Wolfson in his new pharmacy, 1953
Wilfred “Willy” Wolfson was born in Lakeland, Florida on February 27, 1917, the third of four children born to Cyrus and Frances Palestine Wolfson. Cyrus Wolfson had moved to Lakeland from New York in 1910 and sold dry goods and notions door to door. He returned to New York briefly to marry Frances Palestine and brought his young wife back to Lakeland and settled in a small house on North Kentucky Avenue, the first family of the Jewish faith to reside in Lakeland.
The Wolfson’s soon started a family with the birth of sons Jack David in 1913 and Joshua Herbert in 1914. With a new family and new responsibilities, Cyrus Wolfson opened a small clothing store on North Kentucky Avenue in 1915 called Wolfson’s. Five years later, after the birth of Willy Wolfson in 1917, Cyrus Wolfson moved his store to a larger location on east Main Street in 1920 and renamed it the Famous Department Store. It was at the time the largest store in Lakeland. The department store prospered, Cyrus invested in apartments, citrus groves, and other real estate, and moved the family to a new home on Success Avenue near Lake Morton. Wolfson’s success and acceptance in Lakeland attracted other Jewish families to the city and they eventually established Temple Emmanuel as their house of worship in the 1930’s.
The three Wolfson boys (Jack, Herbert, and Willy), later joined by sister Irene, born in 1926, led a relatively idyllic childhood, boating and swimming in Lake Morton and attending the city’s public schools. Much of that changed with the onset of the Great Depression in 1929. Cyrus Wolfson lost most of the property that he had purchased in the 1920’s and was eventually forced to close the Famous Department Store. Though the family endured some hard times, it endured and eventually returned to some degree of prosperity.
The youngest boy, Willy, graduated from Lakeland High School in 1934 and followed his older brothers to Gainesville and the University of Florida. Though he originally registered in the pre-med program, Willy eventually switched his major to pharmacy. After two years, he was forced to withdraw from college temporarily for financial reasons. He returned to Gainesville in the fall of 1937 and earned a degree in pharmacy in 1940. He had also been commissioned a Second Lieutenant in the Army Field Artillery after completing four years of ROTC in 1939. After graduation, Willie returned to Lakeland and was hired as a pharmacist in the local Liggett’s Drug Store, while continuing to serve in the Army Reserve. Willy appeared on his way to a new career, but World War II intervened.
Willy Wolfson was called to active duty in August, 1941 and assigned to a field artillery regiment. Wolfson went on to serve for the duration of World War II, including more than three years in the Pacific Theater. Among the campaigns in which he participated were Guadalcanal, the Solomon Islands, and Leyte in the Philippines. By the time he was discharged from the army in 1946, he had risen in the ranks from a Second Lieutenant to a Major.
After his discharge Wolfson returned to work as a pharmacist, first in Orlando, Florida and then back in Lakeland. Shortly after his return, Wolfson met Elaine Grossman and the two were married in September, 1946. After living for a year in Brooklyn, the couple returned to Lakeland and Willy worked as a pharmacist for several years in and around Lakeland. The couple had two children, Sandra born in 1948 and Steven in 1953.
It was a year late in 1953 that Willy and Elaine opened a business of their own, Wolfson’s Pharmacy, on South Florida Avenue in Lakeland. They had the idea or providing drive-up service and free delivery of prescriptions to their customers.. At first, it was only the two of them, with Willie filling the prescriptions and Elaine delivering them. The businesses prospered and not only were they able to hire staff to assist them, they opened two more pharmacies in 1955 and 1957.
All three stores prospered and both Willie and Elaine became active in a variety of civic and cultural organizations in Lakeland. They were also active members of Temple Emmanuel and played a significant role in its growth and expansion over the years. Willy also became something of an expert in the early history of Lakeland, having experienced much of it directly, and was much in demand as a speaker at meetings of civic and cultural groups throughout the city.
In 1988, after nearly 50 years as a pharmacist, Wolfson sold the Wolfson Pharmacy to the Publix Supermarket chain and retired. Both he and Elaine continued to be active in the community and in Temple Emmanuel and took time to travel and visit friends and family for nearly 20 years. Elaine died in the fall of 2009 at the age of 87 and Willie died at the end of 2011at the age of 94.
Willy Wolfson had a lifelong interest in the history of his home town of Lakeland and of the role of the Jewish community in contributing to the cultural and spiritual life of his beloved city. That interest is reflected in the more than 30 chronologically arranged scrapbooks that he meticulously compiled over the course of his life time. They, along with his unpublished autobiography, intertwine the history of the city of Lakeland and the history of the Wolfson family in a compelling narrative. His children Sandra and Steven recognized the importance of their father’s work and have insured that it will be preserved for study by future generations by donating the scrapbooks and autobiography to the Special Collections unit of the Lakeland Public Library.