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Felton Williams kept the faith in good times and bad

PLANT CITY - The pews at Eastside Baptist Church were packed Dec. 30 as the community said goodbye to Felton Williams, who sold the groceries that fed generations of residents. Williams was remembered for his hard work, humor and faith at the funeral service, which was held the same day he would have turned 88. "He wasn't just a businessman, he was an individual who touched lives and touched people," said the Rev. Maxie Miller, senior pastor of New City Church and a longtime friend. "He cared about this community." The defining moment in his early life came in 1944, when he became a Christian aboard an Army transport ship on its way to Europe in World War II. The ship was being menaced by Nazi submarines and he dropped to his knees and prayed for salvation and divine protection, his son Lee said.
"He was a man of prayer. When I was with him, we prayed a lot together," said Lee, who joined his dad in the grocery business and now manages Felton's Meat and Produce with his sister Karen Davis. Felton Williams returned from the war in 1946 and joined his father in the grocery business until the 1950s, when he and his wife Lucille, who shared 68 years together, started their own store with "exactly $4.57" in his pocket. A mourner, Cleo Willis, said Williams developed quite a following during his decades running a store. "Everybody in town knew Felton," Willis said. Felton Williams opened his first store before the era of chain supermarkets. He managed to stay in business as Publix moved to town, followed by other large stores. He worked long days, including Sundays, when he headed to work after attending services at Eastside. Williams carved out a niche for his store by carrying ethnic foods and such Southern favorites as chitterlings, and mustard and collard greens. Customers were always king, and if he didn't have it, he'd get it, his son said. Times weren't always good, though, and in the 1980s, he hit financial hard times and essentially had to start over again, Lee Williams said. Even in those difficulties, his faith wasn't shaken. "He may have been hurting on the inside but you never knew it," said the Rev. Waylon Carlisle, his pastor at Eastside for 27 years. "He always had a smile on his face." Williams was tested again — and his spirits remained high — when he was diagnosed a few years ago with Parkinson's disease, a neurodegenerative brain disorder. "He had a power he depended on that was much greater than himself. He always reached out to God for strength," Carlisle said. A sense of humor — and a heaping helping of generosity — were part of his life's story, Lee Williams said. Lee Williams said he is trying to carry on the tradition that his parents set, following the biblical principles of always having a servant's heart. "They were cheerful givers. They believed God put them here to do that," Lee said. "They didn't give to get back. They gave because they knew it was right and the Christian thing to do." Besides his wife, Lee Williams and Karen Davis, survivors included son Jeff, sisters Dorothy Andreu and Geraldine "Dinky" Cribbs, brother Leo and two grandchildren.

dnicholson@tampatrib.com (813) 394-5103
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