For 30 years, a prescription for friendliness

Retiring: Pharmacy cashier Williean Austin has offered her customers an extra dose of cheer.

May 01, 2001|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

If you've lived in Catonsville for any length of time, your prescriptions have probably passed through the hands of Williean Austin.

Austin worked at the Paradise Pharmacy for 21 years, then joined the Rite Aid across the street three years ago. Now "Miss Willie," as the cashier is known to many, is getting ready to retire.

"She can call you by your name," said Grace MacNeil, a customer since the Paradise days. "She goes running for your prescription when she sees you coming."

Austin starts spreading good will around the community before she gets to the Rite Aid store on Frederick Road at 9 a.m.

First she takes the 8:20 a.m. No. 2 bus from her West Baltimore neighborhood.

"She gets the whole bus smiling," said fellow rider Terry Weippert, who also works at Rite Aid. "She comes on smiling, saying `Good morning' to everybody on the bus, and everybody knows Miss Willie's on the bus."

Then it's one more stop at the 7-Eleven to get her morning coffee.

"She perks the place up," said store clerk George Jones. "She's chipper."

But everyone agrees that it is behind the counter of the Rite Aid pharmacy from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays where Austin shines in her powder blue smock.

"She's so friendly; it's like family coming down here," said Larry Della, who's been getting his prescriptions through Austin for 25 years. "She treats everybody like their cousins, nephews, aunts and uncles."

Austin grew up on a tobacco and cotton farm in Jefferson, S.C., and made her way to Baltimore in 1963 in search of a job. She landed one, pressing pants in a Catonsville laundry.

After taking a class in cashiering, she worked for Beechfield's Pharmacy in West Baltimore for six years. Paradise bought out Beechfield's, and Austin shifted locales.

At the Paradise pharmacy, Austin planted her deep Catonsville roots, delivering prescriptions to shut-ins.

"I would go back to visit the older ladies after my shift and help them with things that they needed to have done," Austin said.

When Paradise sold its business to Rite Aid three years ago, one stipulation was that Austin remain, she said.

"The customers came over with her," said Rite Aid store manager Julie Owens. "And they're more than customers, they're friends. They light up when they see Willie."

Sometimes, customers seek more than medicine can provide, Austin said.

"Somebody will be ailing so much that they'll say, `Miss Willie, will you pray with me?' and we'll pray," Austin said.

After 24 years in the business, Austin will be able to retire in September when she turns 65. But she acknowledges that it's going to be hard to give up her daily routine.

"I really love the people," Austin said. "I may have to work a day or two just to come back and see the people."

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