Remembering Stew Leonard, Sr.

Stew Leonard, Sr. — founder of “the world’s largest dairy store,” which now sells everything from cashmere to wine, has 7 locations in the tri-state area, and traces its heritage to a milk dispensing machine at the corner of Saugatuck Avenue and Treadwell Avenue — died yesterday at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York, from complications of pneumonia. He was 93 years old, and lived in Westport.

A graduate of Norwalk High School and the University of Connecticut’s School of Agriculture, Stew first worked for his family’s business: Clover Farms Dairy in Norwalk.

It was state-of-the-art for its time. with a pasteurizing and bottling plant, and fresh milk delivered daily by trucks (with plastic cows on the front that “mooed” for the neighborhood children).

Stew Leonard, Sr.

In the late 1960s, Stew realized the milk delivery business was going the way of the iceman. His belief that it was time to start something new was driven home when the state informed him that Clover Farms Dairy was in the path of a new highway.

He decided to build a retail dairy store where children could watch milk being bottled, while parents shopped in a farmer’s market atmosphere.  In December 1969, Stew Leonard’s opened its doors. It was 17,000 square feet, and carried just 8 items.

Stew Leonard’s grew into what Ripley’s Believe It or Not called the “World’s Largest Dairy store.” It also earned a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records for the highest dollar sales per square foot of selling space. The company is featured in two books by management expert Tom Peters.

Stew was presented with the Presidential Award for Entrepreneurial Excellence in 1986 by President Ronald Reagan, and gave a keynote address to the National Speakers Association. He was named a “Top 50 Visionary” by Supermarket News in 2002, and received awards from Ernst & Young,  Inc. magazine and Dale Carnegie. Stew received an honorary doctorate from the University of Bridgeport in 1987.

He published a memoir — “Stew Leonard: My Story” — in 2009.

Stew grew up around the water, and loved Long Island Sound. He won the 1956 North American Water Ski championship, and set a world and national record in point totals for trick water skiing in 1959.

He invented and patented the “Skee-Trainer,” which was attached to a tow rope to teach people to water ski.

Throughout his life he stood at the front door of his Norwalk store greeting customers, often by name.

Stew Leonard’s has grown into a $600 million family owned and operated business. It was named one of Fortune magazine’s “100 Best Companies to Work For,” 10 years in a row.  The company is run by Stew’s son, Stew Leonard, Jr., with help from his siblings Tom Leonard, Beth Leonard Hollis, and Jill Leonard Tavello. Five of Stew’s grandchildren have also joined the business.

Stew Leonard’s Norwalk store.

A memorial service and burial will be private. A celebration of life will be held at a later date.

Donations in Stew’s memory may be made to the Stew Leonard III Water Safety Foundation, which helps fund swimming lessons for children in need. It honors his grandson, who drowned in 1989. Click here to send a message to the family. Cards can also be sent to 100 Westport Avenue, Norwalk, CT 06851.

Stew is survived by his wife of 70 years, Marianne Guthman Leonard, their 4 children, 13 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren.

8 responses to “Remembering Stew Leonard, Sr.

  1. Andrew Colabella

    A long life well lived and fulfilled with decades of service to millions of people. Stew Sr and his family are some of the most generous kind hearted people I have ever met. Already a ready to help out and give. A true American.

    Stew, you will not be forgotten ❤️

  2. I wonder how many out there remember the water ski show that he put on off the front beach at Compo. Big deal at the time. Jumping ramps, human pyramids, kite skiing, barefoot off of the beach etc.??? I’m guessing 1960ish?? I was obviously very, very RIP Stew.

  3. Still one of my favorite places to shop!!!!!!

  4. Barbara Sherburne '67

    My senior year at Staples I lived across the street from the milk dispensing machine. I think the complex we lived in was on Wolfpit Avenue.

  5. Gloria Gouveia

    My late parents John and Jeanne Soto knew Stew from his days in the milk delivery business. Years later my father and Stew reconnected when they both earned acclaim as Entrepreneurs of the Year in their respective fields, along with such other luminaries as Victor Kiam of Remington (Razors) Products fame.
    My deepest sympathies to the Leonard family. Both Stew and his late brother Leo Leonard, revered founder of Leonard Surveyors both understood the importance of balancing commitment to business with commitment to family.
    May they both rest in peace.

  6. Everything he did was first class…everything 💕🙏

  7. Stew was an entreprenerial genius. I used to shop there all the time when my two oldest boys were kids – they loved the animated puppets, the little animal farm outside and the quirky vibe place gave off. My wife and I still shop there sometimes, even though it’s a bit of a trek for us, and it’s where we still get our Christmas tree every year. Thanks for everything, Stew – RIP.

  8. If I’m remembering correctly, there was also a vending machine on the property where the first Norwalk store eventually opened. My mother used to shop at the A&P across the street..

Leave a Reply