Co-owner of iconic Helen Wolff stores dies at age 95

Bert Schweizer II

Bert Schweizer II was a man short in stature, just 5-feet-6, but blessed with a booming voice and engaging smile that commanded both attention and affection. He employed those gifts as the co-owner of the locally iconic Helen Wolff Shops for 50 years, as a Boy Scout leader for even longer, and, in the latter part of his life, as a volunteer logging more than five thousand hours at Barnes Jewish Hospital and Missouri Baptist Medical Center.    

Mr. Schweizer, 95, died Oct. 21, 2019, at the Brookdale West County senior center in Ballwin from complications of dementia. 

Mr. Schweizer was born on Jan. 17, 1924 to Albert and Esther Schweizer of St. Louis. He got an early introduction to retailing as his dad operated the Busy Bee Department Store in Wellston. Mr. Schweizer got into scouting early as well, and by age 15 had worked his way up to Eagle Scout. Not long after he was off to the University of Missouri, but for just a year or so as he was drafted in 1943 and went on to serve with the Army Air Corps 436th Carrier Group based in England and France. 

After the war, he married Elizabeth “Lizzie” Wolff, who he had known ever since the two started attending University City schools in the pre-war years. Lizzie’s parents also happened to be retailers. Walter and Helen Wolff had been operating since 1937 what was then known as Wolff’s, a women’s clothing store in the Delmar Loop. When the couple opened a new store on Maryland Avenue in Clayton, they renamed it the Helen Wolff Shop to distinguish it from a downtown clothier and a relative also named Wolff. 

Mr. Schweizer and other family members provided leadership for the company starting in the 1960s and expanded operations to Plaza Frontenac and Longboat Key, Fla. Sales associates at the Helen Wolff shops were known for lavishing attention on their customers, including the little ones whose moms would bring them in to buy their school clothes. Along with the fashionable apparel, the stores featured a wide array of gift items that the associates would take the time to wrap for customers at the counter at no charge.

Outside of work, Mr. Schweizer continued his association with scouting. In 1972, he received the Scouting Silver Beaver Award given by the Boy Scouts of America to adult leaders who set an example by implementing the scouting program and performing community service over many years. Schweizer received his award from astronaut Neil Armstrong at a ceremony at the Chase Park Plaza Hotel. Schweizer’s sons, Bert III and Tom, would also become Eagle Scouts and along with their sister, Betsy, also stepped outside their professions to take on roles in community service.

Mr. Schweizer attended his first Cardinals game in 1929 and became a lifelong fan. He remembered while with his parents at age seven finding himself sitting next to Babe Ruth at a restaurant at a Chicago hotel. Ruth advised young Schweizer to always eat everything on his plate. In later years, Schweizer would tell friends that the Sultan of Swat was to blame for making him chubby.   

In 1973, youngest son Tom joined the Helen Wolff operation and father and son and Mr. Schweizer’s brother-in-law ran the stores until 1990, when Helen Wolff shuttered. Mr. Schweizer remained busy long after retirement, serving as a volunteer at the hospitals and also as volunteer for the Senior Olympics. He served several terms on the Creve Coeur Planning and Zoning Commission.

Surviving along with Mr. Schweizer’s three children, are eight grandchildren and 10 great grandchildren 

Funeral services for Mr. Schweizer were private.

Donations can be made to The Foundation for Barnes-Jewish Hospital - ATTN: Bert Schweizer Tribute; 1001 Highlands Plaza Drive West, Suite 140, St. Louis, 63110. Gifts may also be made online at www.FoundationBarnesJewish.org.  In “Areas to Support,” select “Other” and specify “Bert Schweizer.” Or the charity of the donor’s choice.