C. Brooks Oakford; owned candy store
Aunt Charlotte's Candies in Merchantville was so busy around the holidays that the "Candy Man" sometimes spent $300 a day entertaining his customers.
C. Brooks Oakford kept his clientele happy asking children, their parents, and various customers to pick heads or tails. Then he flipped a fresh dollar bill that turned as it fluttered to the ground. Those who guessed the way it would land got to keep the bill.
On Friday, Nov. 29, Mr. Oakford, 90, who lived most of his life in Merchantville, died of cancer.
Family and employees Monday recalled a cheerful father and owner of the candy store opened by his father, Charles, in 1920. Years later, when his father died suddenly, Mr. Oakford returned to New Jersey from overseas service with the Army, said his daughter Randy, who now runs the business with her sister Penny Trost.
Before that, "he never did more than wash a few dishes," Randy Oakford said. "He didn't know much about the business."
Mr. Oakford had been an Army mechanic and wanted to be an architect. He embraced his new role, taking over the business to support his family.
"He was perfect for the job," Randy Oakford said. "My dad had a really great vision and he had a lot of the guts that it takes to be an entrepreneur."
At the same time, he kept his promise and married his high school sweetheart, Virginia "Bunny" Hudson. The two dated for seven years, first meeting as students at Merchantville High School. After his graduation in 1942, Mr. Oakford joined the Army. Trost said her father did not want to marry until he was certain he would return from the war alive.
"He joked that he married the Easter Bunny," Randy Oakford said. Her sister displayed a chocolate mold her father made for their mother when he returned. The couple were married for 66 years.
"My dad was a great dad," said Randy Oakford, recalling how he left the store to attend sporting events for his children, and always welcomed their friends in the store.
Daughter Gail Humes, as a child, told her parents she wasn't sure whether she had so many friends because she was pretty, or smart, or because her father owned a candy store.
When Mr. Oakford wanted to expand from Center Street to Maple Avenue, he picked a feed store, and the owner agreed to sell. The bank, however, would not lend him money, fearing a feed store could not be transformed into a successful candy store.
Mr. Oakford did it on his own after he inherited stocks from a family friend. He gutted the building, but kept a rustic atmosphere, converting wooden wagon wheels into candy bins, and doing much of the carpentry himself.
The store has been modernized, but Mr. Oakford retained the charm of oak trim and exposed brick in the shop, packing plant, and second-floor factory. He visited the store as recently as Easter, and brought with him fresh bills to flip.
Monday, workers kept busy with a steady flow of customers. The store employs about six full-time employees and up to 40 part-timers as needed. Mr. Oakford's grandson Ryan Trost is following his grandfather's path.
Paige Atkinsson of Pennsauken has been employed for 25 years. Her boss, she said, was a "wonderful man" who also flipped bills for employees and hosted a holiday party every year.
The bill flip, relatives said, was Mr. Oakford's way of starting conversation inside the store and out. It was also a clever diversion when customers could appreciate the entertainment rather than worry about long lines.
Rhonda Ilves of Haddonfield started working at the shop nearly five years ago, after her children were in school and she was ready to go back to work. Her daughter suggested the candy store because her mother was always so happy there.
"He called me Smiley," Ilves said. Two years ago, while she went through treatment for breast cancer, Ilves said, Mr. Oakford sent cards, called frequently, and brought her meals. He told her he admired how she smiled despite the adversity.
"When I came back, he said, 'There's my Smiley,' " Ilves said. "He was the true Candy Man."
In addition to his wife, daughters, and grandchild, Mr. Oakford is survived by daughter Candy Curry; four other grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
Visitation is scheduled for Tuesday, Dec. 3, from 9 a.m. to noon at the First Presbyterian Church of Merchantville, 10 W. Maple Ave. A service will follow at the church. Interment will be private.