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Obituaries

Bill Williams, 86; Longtime Florist and Mentor in Compton

June 22, 2004|Myrna Oliver | Times Staff Writer

Bill Williams, a Compton neighborhood florist who operated one of the oldest African American-owned floral shops in the country, has died. He was 86.

Williams died Friday at St. Francis Medical Center in Compton, where for his final 48 hours he shared a room with his wife and florist shop partner, Myrtle. Wini Jackson, a friend of the couple for many years, said that Williams, who had been concerned about his wife's declining health, had died of complications from a fall at his home.

A Los Angeles native, Williams was working as a janitor at the Bel-Air Country Club in the early 1950s when he saw a man arranging ferns for a table centerpiece and decided, "That's for me." He took flower-arranging classes at night at Manual Arts High School and got a job delivering flowers, talking with florists about their art. In 1958, he opened Bill Williams Florist in the garage behind the house on 137th Street in Compton that he and Myrtle had bought in 1951. Myrtle quit her job in the garment district to work beside him.

Over 46 years, the little shop provided floral arrangements for the community's weddings and funerals and corsages for proms and graduations. If a family couldn't afford the full price, the Williamses provided discounts.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday June 24, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
Bill Williams -- The obituary for Bill Williams in Tuesday's California section said St. Francis Medical Center was in Compton. Although it has an affiliated clinic there, the hospital is in Lynwood.

Perhaps more important, the childless couple became mentors and surrogate parents for the area's children. He would teach them how to arrange flowers, take orders and sweep the floors. Williams also quietly taught them how to succeed in life -- stay in school, always be courteous, to practice responsibility by minding the shop when he wasn't there.

The children that the couple helped raise called them Mom and Dad. Even though they were not official parents, the Williamses joined area schools' Parent-Teacher Assns.

"If you can't be a part of the community, why be there?" he told The Times in 1999.

Tony Owens, one of the boys Williams mentored in the 1950s, said for the 1999 article that Williams taught him not only flower arranging, but also "something I could use the rest of my life. He kept me off the streets and helped me grow on the right path. It taught me the value of working, of understanding people."

If a youth couldn't afford to attend his prom or his graduation, Williams provided the money. Occasionally, he financed a special experience such as a trip to the mountains.

Modest and unassuming, Williams always shrugged off any praise. "I don't want to be praised for anything I've done," he told a reporter five years ago. "I'm just being me. I got more satisfaction out of it than anyone else."

The Williamses' six-decade love affair became as much a part of neighborhood lore as their florist shop. Until illness overtook Myrtle, the couple were still working side by side and still flirting.

After meeting at a club in South Los Angeles in 1942, they soon married in the home of a neighborhood preacher, wearing their work clothes. Two years ago, Jackson and other friends decided to do the whole thing properly and celebrated the Williamses' 60th anniversary with a surprise reception at the Willowbrook Senior Center and a ceremony to renew their wedding vows at the Wayfarer's Chapel. Local businesses donated a three-tiered wedding cake, transportation by limousine and matching wedding rings.

Williams, survived only by his wife, will lie in repose at their combination florist shop and home from noon to 5 p.m. Friday. His favorite recordings by Billie Holiday will provide background music. Funeral services are scheduled for 10 a.m. Saturday at Solomon's Mortuary, 10625 S. Broadway, Los Angeles.

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