Like many people who lived through the Great Depression, pharmacist William “Bill” Bender lived a simple life, working at the old-fashioned drugstore he owned on Walden Avenue.
People who knew Bender described him as a frugal businessman with a generous nature who fixed broken televisions for customers and had their medicine delivered if they were too sick to leave their home.
When Bender’s $2 million bequest to the Center for Hospice & Palliative Care in Cheektowaga became known this week, it came as no surprise to former neighbors and employees. The gift was made in memory of his wife, Phyllis, who died in Hospice Buffalo from cancer in 2001.
“She had spent considerable time in a long-term-care facility, and he worried that she was not getting compassionate treatment,” said Raymond Palmowski Jr., a former employee at the drugstore. “He was very impressed with the care she received at hospice.”
According to Patrick Flynn, president of the Hospice Foundation of Western New York, Bender’s gift will go a long way toward funding a massive overhaul of the agency’s 22-bed inpatient unit and main clinical building,
“As a pharmacist, Mr. Bender witnessed the care and comfort his customers received from Hospice Buffalo,” Flynn said. “His legacy will continue as we will dedicate our clinical building to Phyllis and William Bender upon the completion of the renovations in late 2014.”
The $7.5 million makeover includes the renovation of all 22 rooms of the Mary & Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Hospice Inpatient Unit located on the Mitchell Campus on Como Park Boulevard. The project is the second phase of a $10 million capital improvement plan, which also included renovations at the St. John Baptist/Hospice Buffalo Inpatient Unit on Maple Street.
Hospice Buffalo and its affiliate, Supportive Medical Partners, cares for more than 600 patients each day by providing palliative care and consultation to any patient with serious illness.
Bender, who was 91 when he died earlier this year at his Florida home, never forgot the kindness shown to his terminally ill wife at Hospice Buffalo.
After graduating from the University of Buffalo School of Pharmacy in 1943, Bender joined the U.S. Army Air Forces. The World War II veteran served in the China-Burma-India Theater, according to Palmowski, a retired agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Bender owned and operated Rozek Pharmacy at 600 Walden Ave. near Bailey Avenue. He sold the business to Rite-Aid Corp. in the mid-1990s and then marked 50 years of marriage by taking his wife to Europe on the Concorde supersonic plane, recalled Palmowski, who started dusting store shelves for Bender when he was 8.
“He would give me a marble composition notebook, a Bic pen and my choice of candy bars,” Palmowski recalled. “As I got older and I was allowed to cross the street, I would make coffee runs for him after school to Deco Restaurant.”
Palmowski would work 15 years for Bender at the drugstore. He called his boss generous but said Bender did not believe in waste or excess. He recalled one time when his brother, who also worked at the store, charged a customer the sale price for an item even though the sale had ended.
“Bill came over to my brother at the register and told him the sale had ended that morning,” recalled Palmowski. “He grabbed a handful of coins from the register and threw them on the floor.”
“You are throwing money away,” Bender told his brother, Palmowski recalled.
On another occasion, Palmowski experienced first-hand Bender’s generosity. Palmowski was 23 and driving a beat-up Ford Fairmont with a rotting, rusted floor. He had his eyes on a used Chevrolet Nova.
“I had $800 and needed $1,100 more,” Palmowski said. “I asked Bill if I could leave early the next day to apply for a bank loan. He shows up in the store with 11 $100 bills. He gave them to me and said: ‘Pay me back when you can.’ That’s the type of person he was. His gift to Hospice does not surprise me at all.”
Phyllis Bender was also known for her generosity, according to neighbors of the Benders who lived on Ludington Street before moving to Williamsville.
“She was famous for her apple pies,” said William Chiesi, 57. “She used to have us over to the house and gave us all kinds of treats. She was like an aunt you loved to visit. They had no children so they loved us.”
Chiesi and his older brother, Charles, grew up in the predominantly Italian neighborhood defined by corner stores, taverns and milk machines that dispensed a one-quart carton of milk for a quarter.
“My mother and Phyllis knew each other well,” said William. “Phyllis would send us to the corner store. She would send us to the milk machine, and she would reward us. When they bought a new television, we’d get their old one. It brought them happiness.”