Bernard D. Wilen, 99, of Wynnewood, a World War II veteran and second-generation owner of the landmark Wilensky Hardware store in South Philadelphia, died Monday, May 15, of pneumonia at Saunders House.
Mr. Wilen grew up in an apartment above the family’s store at 1113 E. Passyunk Ave. and in the 1970s took over the business established by his father, Samuel Wilensky. Over the years, the family surname changed from Wilensky to Wilen, but the shop’s name remained the same.
Mr. Wilen’s life’s work was operating the store, where customers came for small tools, general hardware, and the locksmith services they needed for their homes and vehicles. He waited on each with patience and understanding, even if the client did not speak English.
“When the Hmong and Vietnamese refugees arrived in South Philly, they'd come to the store and draw pictures of light bulbs or wrenches, and my dad would find them the supplies they needed for their homes,” said daughter Amy Buckman.
When Mr. Wilen retired, he handed the business to his son, Barry. It continues to be a neighborhood fixture, his daughter said.
Born on St. Patrick’s Day in Bella Vista, Mr. Wilen was the son of a Russian immigrant mother, Fannie, and a "Yankee" father. “He was a Jewish kid in an Italian neighborhood,” his daughter said.
Mr. Wilen graduated from South Philadelphia High School in 1934 and from Temple University four years later.
While in college, he met Marion Wolinsky through a friend, Ben Levin. “Mom had dated Ben – but they were both a little strong-headed," said his daughter. "Ben thought his more mild-mannered friend, Bernie, might be a better match for her.”
Wolinsky and Mr. Wilen were married twice – once in a civil ceremony in November 1941, and a second time in a Jewish ceremony in January 1942. They had three children.
Mr. Wilen’s roots in a melting-pot neighborhood laid the groundwork for his tolerance for others with diverse backgrounds, his daughter said. During the turbulent 1960s, when racial tension erupted in American cities, Mr. Wilen took as his apprentice Ike Brooks, a young African American man, and later helped Brooks open his own business.
From October 1943 to April 1946, Mr. Wilen served in World War II. He saw active duty in northern France, according to his military discharge paper. He was honorably discharged with the rank of staff sergeant.
As word spread of Mr. Wilen’s death, family friends responded. Neil Ortiz, who grew up near the hardware store, said Mr. Wilen was very attentive to the neighborhood children.
“He helped me set up a basketball hoop made of an old-school milk crate hung up against the exterior wall of Guy Giordano's building at 1101 E. Passyunk Ave.,” Ortiz wrote in an email. “It meant the world to me when I was 5 years old.”
In the late 1940s, the family moved to Havertown, where they developed lasting friendships with their neighbors. The Wilens joined Temple Adath Israel, for which Mr. Wilen served as president of the Men’s Club.
He was the founding president of the Greater Philadelphia Locksmiths Association. Toward the end of his career – Mr. Wilen worked into his 80s – he still appeared at the hardware store four days a week.
After retiring, Mr. Wilen and his wife traveled extensively. They wintered in Boca Raton, Fla. Once their grandchildren were old enough to travel, the Wilens enjoyed hosting them at the beach. His wife of 69 years died in 2011.
In addition to his daughter and son, he is survived by son Dennis and four grandchildren.
A graveside service with military honors will be held at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday, May 17, at Haym Salomon Memorial Park, Frazer. Shivah will be observed Wednesday and Thursday evenings at the home of Amy and Terry Buckman.
Memorial donations may be made to the Greater Philadelphia Locksmiths Association Scholarship Fund, 7229 Park Ave., Pennsauken, N.J. 08109.