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Posted on Tue. Dec. 17, 2013 - 12:01 am EDT

Fort Wayne man remembers Wolf & Dessauer's 'orphans' dinners' as a generous holiday gift

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Jim Smith's best memories of the Wolf & Dessauer Department Store aren't those of most people.

Sure, the Fort Wayne resident remembers the lighted Santa and reindeer that once graced the side of the store, the enchanting holiday scenes in its store windows and the store's longtime Santa Claus, Phil Steigerwald.

But the store memory Smith thinks of is one he said rarely gets talked about — a generosity that brightened his holidays and those of other children facing difficult times in the mid-1940s.

“Looking back at it, I've never had people give like that, and people don't give like that now,” Smith, 79, said.

For about a year at age 10 and again for about a year at age 12, Smith lived at the Pixley Home, which took in children whose parents couldn't take care of them.

Many of the children came from families with only one parent, typically through death or divorce, he said.

His mother died of cancer in 1943, Smith said. His father worked nights as a janitor at Wolf & Dessauer, so the boy needed supervision at night. When he wasn't at the Pixley Home, he sometimes stayed with his father or an older sister.

The Pixley Home was located in the 2300 block of Maumee Avenue, across from Memorial Park, Smith said. The house was torn down long ago and a Moose Lodge — now home to Summit Church — was built on the property.

Smith liked the Pixley Home. The women who staffed it treated him kindly, he said.

“They taught you right from wrong,” he said. “They taught us religion, (but) they didn't shove it down your throat. They taught us to sew — to put on buttons and mend.”

What he also remembers are the Christmas parties that Wolf & Dessauer, known locally as W & D, held for children living at Pixley Home and orphanages around the city.

The store, then located at Calhoun Street and Washington Boulevard, arranged for the children to see a movie at the Palace Theatre across the street, Smith said. He remembers watching “My Friend Flicka” his first time attending, and “Thunderhead – Son of Flicka” the second time.

The children then went to a large open room in the store, where they sat at long rows of tables for dinner.

“We had chicken and noodles over mashed potatoes both times I was there,” he said, the memory lighting up his face.

Then they had a visit from Santa Claus and could pick out a gift in the toy area before going home.

Smith doesn't remember the gifts he selected, but he sure remembers the generosity.

“They just did good things — nice things” in the community, he said.

The “orphans' parties” continued at least into the early 1950s, and took place in November and in April or May, based on store photos and records in the archives of The History Center.

Print photos in the archive show children sitting at the tables for dinner in 1942 and 1946.

Copies of the store's employee newsletter from May 1950 and May 1951 each report about 400 children from orphanages and day homes attended that month's party, said Randy Elliott, History Center exhibitor. Store department managers and their wives served as the meal's busboys and waitresses.

“That was just something they really enjoyed doing,” said Jim Barron of Fort Wayne, who with his wife, Kathie, has written three books about Wolf & Dessauer.

Barron recalled former store leaders William “Bill” and G. Irving “Bud” Latz, now both dead, mentioning the orphan parties during interviews he and his wife did with them for the first book. The Latzes carried on many store traditions started by their father, G. Irving Latz.

The Latz family was Jewish, but they knew how much Christmas meant to people in the community, Barron said. So the store and its staff went all out to help people celebrate the season.

“They were really community-minded,” said Barron, the morning show host on Christian radio network WBCL, 90.3-FM, in Fort Wayne, and a magician-comedian in his spare time. “That was one thing I got out of talking with them. The community was really important to them.”

L.S. Ayres & Co. bought W & D in 1969, and closed the store 10 years later. But for Jim Smith and many others, its holiday spirit never will be forgotten.

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