Look closely at the new clock in Olde Towne Plaza. It does much more than tell time. Keeping watch over History Park adjacent to the railroad tracks, the clock bears a plaque: “In Memory of Leonard Katz & Sara Wolfson Katz.”
In its dedication, the new clock will keep the city’s past current.
Leonard and Sara Wolfson Katz, parents of Sidney, Allen and Terry Katz, owned and ran Wolfson’s Department Store on East Diamond Avenue. Their three sons, daughters-in-law and grandchildren attended a special dedication ceremony on July 29.
“Our hope is that those who enjoy the amenities of Olde Towne Plaza and History Park today and in the future will occasionally look to this clock and be reminded of those who left an indelible mark on this city,” Mayor Jud Ashman said in his opening remarks.
Wolfson’s was established in 1918 by Jacob and Rose Wolfson, a young couple who came to Gaithersburg by way of Baltimore and Rockville from Lithuania. Jacob Wolfson was a tailor, and Rose, a seamstress. They sold custom-made suits and operated one of the first dry cleaning plants in Montgomery County at their store.
“This is quite a tribute to our parents and grandparents that they would be remembered in this way,” said Sidney Katz, owner of Wolfson’s until it closed in 2013, longtime mayor of Gaithersburg and current Montgomery County Council vice president. “On behalf of a very thankful family, we appreciate what the city has done, and we hope that when people sit here and reflect that they’ll think about Gaithersburg in the future and they’ll think about Gaithersburg in its past as well.”
The Wolfson/Katz family owned and operated Wolfson’s for 95 years. Over the years, as the family and town prospered, it became more than a store. It became a gathering place.
“My father would have copies of every newspaper—The Evening Star, The Washington Post—all on the counter in the back of the store. People would come in every morning and read the paper and stand around and solve all the world’s problems. It was a real gathering spot,” Sidney Katz recalled.
He remembers hanging out at the store that he loved when he was 10 years old. At the time, his family lived only a couple of blocks away. Then through his college years at Montgomery College and University of Maryland, he worked at the store on weekends. When he was 21, he became a partner in the store with his parents, Leonard and Sara.
“My father was a fellow who wanted to see me succeed. He would say, ‘Try it and if it doesn’t work out, we’ll figure it out,’” Sidney Katz recalled. “He was a real businessman.”
Sidney Katz brought a new specialty to Wolfson’s: Red Wing Shoes. “I noticed we were selling more work boots,” he said. “With business, you run to the daylight.”
Sara Wolfson Katz began doing Wolfson’s books when she was 12 years old, and she continued to do them until her health began failing, two years prior to her death.
Sidney and Sara Katz operated Wolfson’s for 29 years after Leonard Katz’s death from a heart attack in 1984 at the age of 67.
During those years, they carried on Leonard Katz’s legacy of drawing the community together in the store. “When I became involved in the city, people would stop by to talk about ideas and issues,” Sidney Katz said. “It was always very nice for me.
“People would come in very annoyed sometimes—you could see the steam coming out of their ears—annoyed about something, but they always realized I had two jobs. They would let me finish up with the customer and then we would talk,” he noted.
Residents knew where to find him at lunch, too, Sidney Katz said. He and his brother Allen, an attorney in town, would lunch at the same place every day—Roy’s Place down the street.
Their father had known Roy from Washington and had long conversations with him most mornings when both men would arrive early to open up their businesses. “Roy would be in early cooking his corned beef. My father would be in early with the dry cleaning. And they would talk for an hour while Roy’s meat was cooking,” Sidney Katz recalled.
Through the years, Gaithersburg changed from the commercial center/railroad hub in a primarily agricultural community to a DC suburb and biotech hotspot.
Sidney Katz attended Gaithersburg Elementary, Middle and High School.
“Kids in my grade would show their cattle at the Montgomery County Fair. Now kids go to the fair to see what cattle look like,” he said.
It was not always so diverse. “But Gaithersburg was always a welcoming place,” Sidney Katz said. “At times we were the only Jewish family, and I always say that was a good deal for me because that made me the best-looking Jewish guy in town.”
Community, he said, was and still is the heart of Gaithersburg. When he was growing up, people were home and would sit out on their front porches to talk. Neighbors knew each other, and “if you threw a rock, by the time it landed someone would have already called your mother,” he said.
People are not home as they used to be, he acknowledged, “but Gaithersburg is still community-minded—and now it is one of the most diverse places in America.”
A fact that makes the grandson of hard-working and talented immigrants proud.