Beloved owner of The Little Popcorn Shop in Wheaton dies at 67

WHEATON, Ill. (WLS) -- A community fixture in Wheaton died Monday after a brief battle with cancer.

The little popcorn store on Front Street in Wheaton has been an institution since 1921. Bill Wakefield, the shop's second owner, has been a fixture in the shop since he took it over in 1979.

Wakefield, 67, died Monday night after an eight week battle with cancer. His loss is felt by the entire Wheaton community.

"Anybody who walked through his door was immediately Bill's friend," said Cole Helfrich, Wakefield's lifelong friend.

Wakefield was known for joyfully welcoming his customers to his shop for the last four decades. If buildings could talk, this one would share happy memories of fresh popcorn, of filling kids' stomachs with candies for one cent and of a special bonding experience across generations.

"He was always in the back popping popcorn. He greeted everyone. Even if you didn't have the change to the penny, he made sure you got what you wanted," said Chrissy Ault, a customer of 35 years. She recalls riding her bike to the store as a child and filling her entire bag with candy for $1.

"It might be the smallest store in town but it has the biggest heart," Kathy Riley, a customer of nearly 40 years, said of the 3.5-foot wide shop.

Riley brought her grandniece to the shop Tuesday to honor Wakefield's legacy.

"I've taken my daughter here who is now 34. She lives in Geneva but comes back and brings her daughter here," she said.

In his last days, Wakefield's family asked that his customers share their favorite memories of him on Facebook. They received thousands replies and cards with an outpouring of love for the shop owner.

"We sat there and read them to him, each one that came in, and he was all smiles at that point because he knew people loved him," said Richard Watson, a friend of Wakefield and his business manager.

Helfrich said Front Street will not be the same.

"I think there are two mayors in Wheaton: One is the mayor in city hall; one is Bill Wakefield who is the mayor of Front Street," he said.

Wakefield's family and friends want to assure loyal customers that the Little Popcorn Store will stay open even in Wakefield's absence. His sister Donna will now take over and continue to bring happy memories to the people of Wheaton.
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