Readers Respond

Mikulski is her parents' daughter

With the close of 2016, the distinguished career of Sen. Barbara Mikulski has also come to an end ("'Senator Barb' Mikulski nears retirement after 45 years in office," Dec. 24). Much has been written about her many accomplishments as a public servant, and always with reference to her commitment to being both a voice and a force for the welfare of the individuals and communities she saw as her neighbors.

Not much has been noted about her roots, other than that she was the eldest of three daughters of Christine and William Mikulski, owners of a grocery store in the Highlandtown section of East Baltimore. I lived in that neighborhood and graduated in 1950 with Barbara from Sacred Heart parish school. We were, in many ways, children of the 1940s. We survived the fears and hardships imposed by World War II and began our growing-up in the cautious optimism of the post-war years.


Neighbors really knew each other then, and, in time of need, depended on each other. Part of that supportive culture was the family-owned neighborhood store, especially the bakery, the "confectionary," and the grocery store, each known by the family name of its proprietor: Dobry's, Backof's, Weinech's. Most were located on the corner of an alley and were, in reality, 13-foot-wide rowhouses that the owners had converted into first-floor businesses, with living quarters usually upstairs.

Unlike other neighborhood store owners, the Mikulskis named their business "Willie's." The contrast was so stark that some people thought that "Willie" was the family surname. I can recall my schoolmate Barbara occasionally being called "Barb Willie" by a few of our peers who didn't know either her or her family too well. Store owners did have one thing in common, and that was a kind of respect that customers showed when addressing them. Barbara's parents, therefore, were known as Mr. Willie and Miss Chris.


Inside the store, the long side walls were lined from floor to ceiling with shelves stocked with groceries. The meat counter was in the back, where Mr. Willie (dress-shirt sleeves rolled up, tie tucked behind an apron) would shuffle back and forth between cutting roasts and chops and chicken, shaving lunch meat on the slicer, and wrapping the meats in butcher's paper. In the front half of the store, a countertop facilitated the bagging and cashing out of orders. During busy weekend hours, Miss Chris worked the counter and greeted every customer with an infectious grin that said "Good to see you! Thank you for shopping at our store."

Both during the war years and after, neighborhood women knew they could depend on Mr. Willie. He'd take their orders several days in advance, have them ready for pickup, and even run a little tab for the mom who was a bit short of cash that day. Willie's and two other grocery stores made a kind of triangle in the 3600 block of Foster Avenue and the 600 and 700 blocks of South Eaton Street. An A&P, an Acme, and a Food Fair completed the grocery markets in the community, but Willie's always had a special appeal among the neighbors. Call it service, dependability, friendliness — whatever it was, it was honest and sincere.

Looking back now, 70-some years into an altogether different world, I have fond memories of that grocery store around the corner. And thinking of Mr. Willie and Miss Chris and what they meant to my family and the neighborhood, I can well appreciate the personal ethic that has been a hallmark of Senator Barbara Mikulski. Even as she goes into her retirement with the promise to continue to be a friend to those who are in need, she has been her parents' daughter. She has made them proud.

George W. Nellies, Towson