TERRE HAUTE —
People would go to Cecil Tilford’s Variety Store in 12 Points for many reasons, whether to buy flowers for Memorial Day, chocolates at Christmas or stamps at his contract postal substation.
Today, those who frequented the store are reminiscing about Tilford, the unofficial “Mayor of 12 Points,” who passed away Friday at age 87. He and his wife had opened the store in 1968 and operated it for more than 40 years, until poor health caused him to retire two years ago.
“He was part of the Greatest Generation,” said Jay Jones, who owns the building where the variety store relocated after the original Tilford’s was destroyed in a 2003 fire.
Tilford grew up during the Great Depression and later fought in World War II. After he returned home, he married his childhood sweetheart and started his career.
After Tilford’s retirement, the store closed for a year, but Jones reopened it around Labor Day last year. With the family’s permission, he used the name Tilford’s 5 & 10 at his location at 1279 Lafayette Ave.
“I’ve done it partly because I’m trying to keep the tradition alive,” said Jones, who is 43.
“People love the store. It brings memories,” Jones said. “He [Tilford] had a huge effect on a lot of people” who shopped there.
By the time the store relocated across the street at 1279 Lafayette Ave., Tilford had some difficulty getting around, and Jones would help him set up his merchandise. “I felt guilty. He would drag himself in here — 80 something years old — and be here at 9 a.m. each day without fail,” Jones said.
People who had grown up shopping at the variety store would later return as adults and bring their own children. “Cecil wasn’t trying to be nostalgic — he just was,” said Jones, who described Tilford as “always very personable.”
As people have learned of Tilford’s death, “We’ve had quite a few people call,” Jones said.
Another person who remembers Tilford is Tami Akers, a shift supervisor at the 12 Points CVS. “He would come over quite often. He was so kind,” she said.
Akers viewed Tilford as a source of inspiration. Despite his health challenges, “Here he was, 80 some years old, yet getting up every day and going to work,” Akers said.
He walked with difficulty, “but he never complained,” she said.
She remembers he carried a picture of himself and his wife, Doris, who had passed away in 1999. Akers asked him about his wife once. Tilford told her the story that when he was in first grade, he told his mother he was going to marry Doris Harbrueger — and he did.
Another fan is Stephanie Salter, who always called him Mr. Tilford out of respect. “I’m so sad, but so happy he’s with his wife. I never saw a man love a woman quite the way he loved Doris, even after she was gone,” said Salter, who frequented the store and the postal substation when she moved back to Terre Haute after living in San Francisco for many years.
Salter, a former Tribune-Star columnist and editor, recalled that Tilford “had an incredible work ethic.” Also, “He loved people and he believed in them. He trusted people a lot, which mostly served him well.”
She knew he was in serious physical pain, yet he went to work every day. He wouldn’t have thought of not working.
“He knew as long as he worked, there was a future and it looked good,” she said. “His body gave out on him a little earlier than he planned.”
One of Salter’s fondest memories is a Saturday before Memorial Day, when she went to purchase flowers. It was a busy time of year, and she decided to help out by going downstairs to replenish the supply of artificial flowers, which were “going so fast.”
He sold the flowers at half price that time of year, even though full price was still a bargain, she recalled.
Salter spent most of the afternoon with him, and together, they listened to classical music — she remembers that it was a Puccini opera.
“There we were in a little store from an era gone by … and I was helping him keep his business stocked with artificial flowers,” she said.
She frequently used the post office substation at Tilford’s, and she also bought birthday presents there. “He had an unbelievably eclectic array of stuff,” she said — from old-fashioned kids’ games to potholder looms.
“You stepped back in time in every way possible, culturally and physically,” Salter said.
Tilford’s funeral is at 10 a.m. today at Cottrell-Gooch Funeral Home in Rosedale.
Sue Loughlin can be reached at (812) 231-4235 or firstname.lastname@example.org.