STERLING, Sanpete County Lillie Thomas, 93, a third-generation country storekeeper regarded as a legend in central Utah, was found dead Wednesday morning after working in her store the previous day.
A neighbor who helped her get from her house next door to her store each day found her. The time of her death hasn't been determined.
Except for a few years during World War II when Thomas and her late husband worked in war-related operations in Davis County, she has been a fixture behind the counter of Thomas Grocery, which fronts on U.S. 89 about six miles south of Manti, since about 1930. At the time of her death, she had been waiting on customers for 75 years.
Her death is having "quite an impact on the town," Sterling Mayor Garry Bringhurst said. "I told a couple of truck drivers about it, and both of them started bawling."
"She's been a monument here," Bringhurst added. "People from all over the country knew Lillie" and dropped in to Thomas Grocery when they traveled along U.S. 89.
Kaziah Hancock, an artist whose farm is a couple of miles from the store, described her as a singular example of perseverance. "She's one of a kind. There just ain't many more of them around. It's our loss and heaven's gain."
Thomas' grandfather started a country store in Sterling, a town of about 300, in the 1800s.
Later, her father started up another store in Sterling, and Thomas started clerking for him at 16. In 1945, Thomas and her husband bought out her father's business and built a new store across the road with a single gas pump outside.
Thomas' husband died suddenly in 1975. But she carried on for 33 more years, despite a broken hip that required two surgeries, blindness, cancer and at least three hospitalizations in the past five years.
In 1990, when she was 86, Snow College gave her a distinguished service award at a football game, and she received a standing ovation from the grandstand.
She was one of several Utah storekeepers who starred in a series of Cream 'O Weber TV commercials in which they talked about why their customers wanted Cream 'O Weber products.
A profile published in the Deseret News about a year ago quoted her as saying that over the years, she had given money away to help people and needed to keep working to support herself.
"I love to work with people. I certainly do," she was quoted as saying. "I love to serve if I possibly can. And every doctor has urged me to go on as long as I could."
Funeral arrangements are pending.