Winthrop deVilliers Schwab, 90, retired chairman of Strawbridge & Clothier, died Sunday of Alzheimer's disease at Waverly Heights, a retirement community in Gladwyne.

A native New Yorker who later lived in Wynnewood, Mr. Schwab worked for Macy's, Bloomingdale and Lord & Taylor department stores before joining Strawbridge & Clothier department store in Philadelphia in 1951.

Mr. Schwab, who was hired as assistant to the general merchandising manager, was promoted to vice president and treasurer in the 1960s. In 1978, he was named vice chairman of the board and chief financial officer, and was charged with overseeing the expansion of the company's department stores and its Clover discount division.

He became company chairman in 1980. Three years later, Strawbridge & Clothier's Center City flagship store posted the highest sales in its more-than-100-year history.

As chairman, Mr. Schwab installed a management team to focus on the presentation of merchandise on the sales floor, and oversaw the construction of a food court in the Center City store. He retired in 1984.

In 1996, Strawbridge & Clothier was acquired by May Department Stores. Macy's bought the company in 2005, and the next year, the Strawbridge & Clothier in Center City was closed and the name was phased out.

Mr. Schwab graduated from St. Andrew's School in Middletown, Del. A scholarship student at the then-new boarding school, he remained a devoted alumnus and chaired the school's board for more than 30 years. He earned a bachelor's degree from Yale University, and a master's in business administration from Harvard University.

During World War II, he served in the Navy in the Pacific aboard the heavy cruiser USS San Francisco. He was the bomb disposal officer and, in his free time, crafted jewelry from tin cans for his future wife, Patricia Thurston, and learned to play the guitar.

He and his wife met at a dance at Harvard, and married in 1946.

Mr. Schwab was active with numerous civic groups, including the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce and the Citizens' Council on City Planning. He was past chairman of the board of Waverly Heights, where he had lived since 2001.

In retirement, he was a hospice volunteer, delivered Meals on Wheels, and sang to nursing-home residents. He enjoyed woodworking and played tennis into his 80s.

An "incorrigible Mr. Fixit," he offered his skills to those in need, his son John said. Though usually reserved, Mr. Schwab wrote and performed songs and played his guitar for family and friends on special occasions, his son said.

Mr. Schwab - whose ancestors included John Winthrop, Massachusetts Bay Colony governor, and French Huguenots who helped establish the South African wine industry - was fascinated by his heritage and self-published a book about his family history.

"He was a gentle yet inspiring leader and a father who encouraged all dreams," his son said.

In addition to his son and wife, Mr. Schwab is survived by another son, Winthrop Jr.; daughters Katrina Anderson, Eliza Petersen, Lucy Blythe and Anne Schwab; a sister; eight grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

A memorial service will be at 11 a.m. tomorrow at the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer, 230 Pennswood Rd., Bryn Mawr, where Mr. Schwab was a member of the vestry.

Donations may be made to St. Andrew's School Scholarship Fund, 350 Noxontown Rd., Middletown, Del., 19709.

Contact staff writer Sally A. Downey at 215-854-2913 or sdowney@phillynews.com.