About a year ago, Joel Smilow went to Oscar’s for lunch.
A longtime Westporter, and the former chairman and CEO of Playtex, he’s also a noted philanthropist. He made a transformative gift to Yale-New Haven Hospital’s Smilow Cancer Hospital, and donated medical research buildings at NYU and the University of Pennsylvania (among many other endowments).
Lee Papageorge — the popular owner of Oscar’s Delicatessen — was struck by a sudden thought.
“After all you’ve done for people,” Lee asked Joel, “has anyone ever bought you lunch?”
Lee was happy to do so.
Two months ago, Lee received a tough diagnosis: lung cancer. It was particularly devastating because he never smoked — not once in his life.
Lee is now undergoing immunotherapy — at the Smilow Cancer Hospital.
“Those people are fantastic. They’re geniuses,” Lee says with awe. “They know how to talk to you. They treat you so well. They’re the whole package.”
Lee — who is 65 — has been a part of Oscar’s since the actual Oscar hired him at 16. Working in the original store — a few doors down Main Street, now part of Vince Clothing — Lee earned $1 an hour. “I had $20 in my wallet. I felt fat!” he says.
(Lee was not the 1st Papageorge who fed Westporters downtown. His grandfather and father opened the Club Grill in 1927. It later was known as Muriel’s, on the Post Road at Taylor Place across from what is now Tiffany.)
In 1967, Joe Milici bought Oscar’s (from Oscar). Lee kept working there. Four years later, he became a 50% partner. They moved to their present location soon thereafter.
The ’70s and ’80s were exciting times on Main Street, Lee recalls. There was always something going on.
He and store owners like Bob Hertzel, Stan Klein, Drew Friedman and Dan Coughlin were prime movers behind the Westport Downtown Merchants Association. They loved the area, the town and their customers. They supported each other, too.
Now, Oscar’s is the oldest — and last — “mom-and-pop” store on Main Street.
As he battles cancer, Lee has been buoyed by the support of “very strong women.” Susan Gold, of the Westport Historical Society, has been particularly helpful.
Since he was 16, Lee has been a part of Oscar’s. And Oscar’s has been a part of downtown.
Lee’s many customers — and friends — send all their best wishes to him.