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Leo Higgins, downtown impresario and confidant, dies at 93

PAWCATUCK — Leo Higgins, a longtime pharmacist, who, with his brothers John and Bill, owned a family drugstore that was the heart of downtown Westerly-Pawcatuck for generations, died Monday. He was 93 and had been in declining health, according to his daughter, Blanche Higgins, Westerly’s assistant town planner.

“He had a long and good life,” said Higgins’ son, Joseph Higgins of Pawcatuck. “He was happy with what he did. He spent his time at work, with the family or with my mother.”

“He was ready,” said Marie “Reedy” Higgins Marr, Leo Higgins’ only remaining sibling (she was given her nickname by a very young Leo who had trouble pronouncing his baby sister’s name). Marie worked alongside her brothers at Higgins Pharmacy, a downtown institution begun by their grandfather in the early 1900s. “He had his rosary in his pocket at all times.”

Born in 1921, the oldest of C. Leo and Marie Higgins’ six children, J. Leo Higgins was born into one of the large Irish Catholic clans who settled in the Downerville section on Liberty Street. His father was one of 10 children. Leo graduated from St. Michael’s School, Stonington High School and the Rhode Island College of Pharmacy. He enlisted in the U.S. Navy as a pharmacist during World War II, serving in the Pacific on a medical ship, where he watched as penicillin first came into use.

“He’d tell us stories about it,” said Joseph, also a pharmacist, “about how people were suddenly getting better with ‘the miracle drug.’”

He also liked to tell stories about his earlier days “peddling papers,” said his daughter, Blanche. “My father and his brothers sold The Westerly Sun,” she laughed. “I think they had a monopoly. He had something like 300 customers.”

The Westerly-Pawcatuck of the 1900s was like a Norman Rockwell painting, she added. “It was a time when most people lived and worked in town,” said Higgins, describing her father’s youth and her own. When she was growing up, she recalled, everyone in town went to Higgins Pharmacy — where the lunch counter was legendary — or they worked there.

“I think we employed the entire Stonington High School cheerleading team at one point,” said Blanche.

“People met there regularly,” she said. “It was the center of town for many generations.”

“The lunch counter at Higgins was a booming place,” said Leo’s sister, Reedy Marr. “It was a people place.”

And her oldest brother, she said, “was very, very interested in people. He cared for people.”

He lived up to the motto of the store, she said, “The store of personal, friendly service.”

“He was steady,” said Joseph Higgins. “And he was a good listener. He was quiet and he listened. People knew they could talk to him and they knew they could trust him. His listening might have been his greatest gift. It’s why so many people came to see him. They knew they’d get time, understanding and exceptional advice.”

Charles Shea of Pawcatuck, Higgins’ brother-in-law, said, “He was very attentive to his customers.” Shea owned Shea’s Office Products, which operated for many years next door to the drug store, which itself closed in 1998. “He was concerned about his customers. People could ask him anything about their health and they did.”

Leo Higgins also had an abiding love for downtown Westerly-Pawcatuck, said his daughter, giving a lifetime of service to his family, church, and community. He was instrumental in founding the Downtown Task Force, was a founder of the Stonington Community Credit Union and the Westerly Ambulance Corps, and was a trustee of St. Michael’s Church. He also was past president of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick, which bad been co-founded by his father.

“Leo Higgins was a consummate businessman in this town,” said state Sen. Dennis L. Algiere, who spent many a lunch hour at Higgins’ famous lunch counter. “Downtown was successful because of people like Leo. He was kind and polite and he took good care of his customers. He was a gentleman. A true gentleman.”

“Leo was a good friend and associate,” said Larry Hirsch, who owned Westerly Jewelry on High Street and, along with Higgins, was one of the founders of the Downtown Joint Development Task Force. “Leo was a moving force in the revitalization of the downtown area and a most successful businessman. He always had a twinkle in his eye and a friendly greeting for all. He will be sorely missed.”

Visiting hours will be held for Higgins on Friday from 4 to 7 p.m. at Gaffney-Dolan Funeral Home in Westerly. A funeral liturgy will take place Saturday at 11 a.m. at St. Mary’s Church in Stonington.

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