Leon Ward stands in Ward’s Neighborhood Market in Lewiston shortly after he became the owner in 2016. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal file photo Buy this Photo

LEWISTON — Leon Ward, the popular owner of Ward’s Neighborhood Market on Pine Street in Lewiston, has died. 

A family member said Ward, 50, died unexpectedly Wednesday. The shock of it forced the temporary closure of the store he opened five years ago. 

Within minutes, news of Ward’s passing spread throughout the Lewiston-Auburn community and the mourning began at once. 

“I’m in shock,” said Christopher Matthews, who frequented the store, takeout deli and butcher shop. “He was one of the nicest businessmen I’ve ever known here in Lewiston.” 

The news was felt far and wide across the community, but most directly in the neighborhood around the market. There, neighbors and store customers described Ward as one of the most generous and giving people they had ever met. 

“He was just incredible,” said Kerrie Farris, who lives near the market. “The whole neighborhood was like a family to him. He would treat you like a million bucks no matter who you were. If someone couldn’t pay for their groceries, he made sure they were fed. He just had a lot of faith in humanity, and you don’t find that nowadays.” 

Ward started working at what was then Bourque’s Market at age 16. He stocked shelves and swept floors, mainly, until the owner was so impressed with his work, he made Ward a manager.  

Ward eventually got married and had children, but he always remained connected to the store. 

In late 2015, 29 years after becoming a stock boy at Bourque’s, he bought the business. The store officially became Ward’s Neighborhood Market on New Year’s Day, 2016. 

WHERE EVERYBODY KNOWS YOUR NAME

It was a success from the start, and those who knew Ward the best say that’s because he had a vision for his store — he wanted it to be a friendly neighborhood market in which everyone was valued and respected.  

“He loved his employees like family and he treated them like family,” said Laura Pelletier, Ward’s sister. “And his customers, too. I think that’s why people went there: because of the way my brother treated them.” 

Today, Ward’s is a thriving market, with a family-like atmosphere among its clientele. Some customers appreciate the ambiance of the business as much as they appreciate the quality of the products. 

“It’s a good place to be, with no fighting, good food and good prices,” said Lillian Bennett, a regular customer. 

A truck streaks past Ward’s Neighborhood Market on Pine Street on Thursday as people come and go, hang out and shop. The mood inside was somber as employees reopened the store after closing Wednesday due to the death of owner Leon Ward. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Ward didn’t simply revitalize the store, his customers said. He revitalized an entire neighborhood. 

“He was so considerate of the homeowners around here,” Farris said. “He wanted to make sure that everything was clean looking and all that. He just went above and beyond for the community.” 

“The store really is a part of the city’s small business success stories,” said Jim Bois of Auburn, a customer of the various markets that occupied the Pine Street space since the 1960s. “Leon did a great job keeping the store’s long history going.” 

Ward himself was universally described as an enthusiastic, hardworking and generous man, always willing to help out others where there was a need. 

“The kind of man who would do anything for anyone,” wrote Cindy Blouin-Pinard. 

“He was such an amazing asset to this community,” said Amber Lynn, who owns a building near the store. “He was such a genuine guy, always in a good mood. Leon taking over the store was the most amazing thing that could’ve happened.” 

Matthews, a longtime Ward’s customer, said Ward did such a wide variety of things to help folks, most people didn’t even know about it. 

He made regular donations to the local Salvation Army. He rigged the store ATM machine so that some people would get extra cash when they made withdrawals. He had raffles for food baskets and elaborate parties for his employees around the holidays. 

“All stuff he didn’t have to do but did anyway,” Matthews said. “He truly was a good man.” 

On the store Facebook page, hundreds of people were sharing stories about their interactions with Ward — both the man and the store.  

They talked about how Ward had improved the neighborhood, treated his employees kindly and helped others wherever he could. 

He “even let me put groceries in an account until I could pay for them,” wrote a woman who lives near the store. 

“He was a friend to all — his employees and everyone he met,” wrote Penny Nyob, whose daughter has worked at Ward’s for years.  

Farris told stories about the number of people who couldn’t afford groceries, but who were willing to sweep the front of the store or perform other odd jobs. Ward made sure they were given gift cards so they could get whatever it was they needed. 

In a 2016 interview with the Sun Journal, Ward said roughly 75% of his customers come from the immediate neighborhood. Others are attracted to the long meat counter that runs the length of the back wall, one of the last full-service meat counters left in Maine. 

“Nothing is wrapped in plastic,” Ward said during the 2016 interview. “If you want a half-pound of hamburger, they wrap it up in front of you. All of our hamburger is ground fresh hourly. That has always been a calling card for the store.” 

Ward grew up in Greene and attended Leavitt Area High School. His best friend got a job at Bourque’s and told him about an opening. He started as a stock boy in December 1986. 

“Filling coolers, sweeping floors — whatever they told me to do,” he said in the 2016 interview with the Sun Journal. “I liked the job; I liked working with the public.” 

Though Ward is gone, his family and employees fully intend to keep his legacy alive.  

“We definitely will stay open,” said Pelletier, Ward’s sister. “And hopefully we’ll run it as well as my brother did.” 

She said she plans to meet Friday with the store employees to work out a plan for running the store in Ward’s absence. 

“Big shoes to fill,” said Nyob. “Leon loved the store, the employees, the customers. He leaves a huge loss to a community that appreciated him.”

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