Kayla Davis sat in her late uncle’s Plant City home last week, surrounded by his book collection.
“It’s astounding,” said Davis, 26.
Astounding but not surprising, at least for Leland “Lee” Felton Williams’ family.
People in Tampa Bay knew Mr. Williams as the second-generation grocery store owner who could get them almost any cut of meat: chicken feet, chitlins, cow brains. Neighbors in Plant City knew Mr. Williams from all the groups he devoted himself to: the Lion’s Club, the First Baptist Church, the model train club.
But Kayla and her sister, Cameron, had an uncle who gave them good books each Christmas, started their college funds and called them regularly to make sure they had all the supplies they needed.
“He loved learning,” said their mom and Felton’s co-owner, Karen Davis. She never understood how her brother could watch hours of videos about physics.
Mr. Williams might have become a physicist. Or an accountant, he studied that, too. Instead, he carried on the family business while helping the next generation see why that matters.
He died July 31 of complications from heart surgery. He was 68.
The market on Highway 92
Mr. Williams learned the business from his dad. And his dad figured it out as he went along.
When Felton Williams returned from World War II, he wanted to open his own business. He started with a fruit stand on Highway 92 in Plant City.
“When he decided to strike out on his own, he had $4.83 in the bank,” the Tampa Tribune reported in 2004. “‘And a lot of nerve,’” Felton Williams said then.
He opened the first store in 1955. Mr. Williams drove his tricycle there across the sawdust floor. As a teenager, he and his siblings started out bagging groceries. By the 1970s, the family business had expanded to three locations. In 1975, the elder Williams sold them all. A few years later, he bought them back, then sold them again. In the 1980s, he bought a shop at the corner of Maryland Avenue, not too far from his original fruit stand, and Felton’s was back in business.
Mr. Williams joined his sister there after graduating from the University of Florida.
“We always joked that he did a four-year degree in eight years because he just loved school,” said Karen Davis.
At Felton’s, Mr. Williams always stopped to chat with customers, play with the kids and grab carts or bag groceries. He stood up for his employees, said Shirlene Magglos, who has worked at Felton’s for 25 years. And when she was upset about something, he listened, then tried to fix it.
Mr. Williams also knew meat, which the store became known for, attracting native Floridians in search of Southern food and international transplants searching for the tastes of home.
In the 2004 Tribune story, Mr. Williams recalled what a friend once said about the store: “Felton’s sells every part of the animal from the rooter to the tooter.”
The physics whisperer
Mr. Williams used to read to his nieces when they were babies from a physics book.
Now they’re young adults, and Cameron, 23, just started her Ph.D. program. Kayla should finish her MBA by the end of the year.
“He always said it was because of the physics book,” their mom said.
Or maybe it was the example he set.
“My sister and I both really credit him with instilling in us a love of knowledge, a love of education,” Kayla said. “He was a deeply curious person.”
Before the pandemic, Kayla had started poking around the family business. After the pandemic began, she jumped in to help.
“I ended up really falling in love with the business,” she said. “He really felt it was our duty as a family-owned business in a community to invest in the community and to give back.”
Kayla will carry on the tradition at Felton’s with her mom. She’d been looking forward to learning from her uncle on the job, just like he learned from her grandpa years ago.
Now, she’s learning from the example he left, including the way he adapted the business to grow with customers. Keeping Felton’s running will take more adapting.
Kayla’s already working on it.
Poynter news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story.
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