Pawcatuck’s history is not only made up of old buildings, but people as well. This article is about the man who inspired me to be so interested in the happenings of Pawcatuck, and more importantly, its history.
J. William Higgins was born on March 19, 1929. He was the fifth child born to C. Leo and Marie Higgins. William, or Bill, as he was known to his family and friends was born into a pretty average family. They lived at 26 Lester Ave. in a plain and simple Queen Anne style house. What C. Leo was famous for was starting Higgins Pharmacy in the Dixon Hotel in Westerly RI.
Even though his father owned a very successful store, Bill and his five other siblings (Leo, Johnny, Franny, Reedy, and Patty) did not grow up rich. Most people assumed in those days that if you owned a business in town, you were automatically rich. That was not the case with the Higgins family.
When he was eligible, he was enrolled at St. Michael School, with his brothers and sister (Patty was youngest, and did not attend school at the time). Throughout his years at St. Michael's, he became an active altar server at St. Michael's Church, and played basketball for the school. Eventually, he would become the CYO coach for the Angels, a team of young catholic boys. In fact, the Angels often competed with the Marketeers, a team coached by his brother Franny.
As he grew older, he worked for his father at the pharmacy, which at this point had moved to 37 West Broad St., where it was located until it closed. He went to Providence College, and graduated in 1951. He enrolled at a Catholic seminary in Michigan a short time after he graduated college.
He quickly dropped out of the seminary, realizing that it wasn’t for him. Soon, he married his wife Marga Shea on September 1, 1958. One year after, their son Kevin was born. At this time, they lived on Lester Ave., a few houses down from the family house.
Bill had worked his way up the ladder at the pharmacy until he had become vice-president of the store. He and his brothers Leo and Johnny ran the store from the time their father died in the mid-1950’s until the mid-1990’s. While Leo and Johnny were pharmacists, Bill oversaw the fountain, and store aspect of the store.
He was famous for decorating the store, especially at Christmas. With the big displays in the windows, Higgins Pharmacy was probably the most decorated store in town!
Higgins Pharmacy was a very popular store in Pawcatuck. You didn’t need a newspaper when you went to have coffee at the counter. Everybody who went there knew everybody, and they certainly had their daily regulars! Many daily customers will remember Bill making his rounds talking to people about current events in town.
Several articles were published by newspapers such as The Westerly Sun and The Day in the time that Bill was vice-president of the store. Mostly about his opinions on tax increases, how the town looked, or even parking meters. Bill was always concerned about his customers. He believed that is why the pharmacy lasted until the days when chain drug stores took over Pawcatuck. Friendly, caring service was just one of the phrases used to describe the pharmacy.
Bill loved landscaping, and not only decorated “Fort Higgins” the named people used to describe his home because of all the lights, and plants, but decorated the store a well. He was responsible for planting flowers gardens on the railroad embankment behind the store, in front of the store, and in traffic islands on the street as well.
Higgins Pharmacy was one thing Bill Higgins was famous for, but also being such a great person. His compassion for what he did, love for people, and dry sense of humor really made him liked by the community.
Bill had a “vision” for Pawcatuck. He was always thinking of ways to beautify the town, and new ideas for Pawcatuck. That vision was sadly interrupted. In December 1997, he was diagnosed with an aggressive case of lung cancer. He died on February 8, 1998. He was 68-years-old.
Hundreds packed St. Michael's Church a few days later to remember Bill. In fact, there were so many people, it was standing room only in the church that could seat six hundred people.
Even though Bill’s life ended so suddenly, and so long ago, he legacy still lives in Pawcatuck. Every time you drive by that prominent building at 37 West Broad St., you can’t just help but think of the broad and bold letters reading “Higgins Pharmacy” or the “Higgins Time” clock. Whenever I drive by, not only do I think of the store, its history, and stories I hear about it. I think of my grandfather, William Higgins.