DEATHS

Claire’s founders, Sylvia and Rowland Schaefer, die days apart

 

ebrecher@MiamiHerald.com

Claire’s Stores, the international accessories chain where teens and tweens spend their allowances on fashion jewelry, purses and hair clips, was the creation of Rowland and Sylvia Schaefer, Chicagoans who married in 1948, raised five children in South Florida, and died three days apart in Pompano Beach.

Sylvia Isaacson Schaefer died Sunday at age 89. Rowland’s death followed Wednesday. He was 96.

He’ll be laid to rest Thursday at the Temple Beth El of Boca Raton mausoleum, where Sylvia was entombed Tuesday. Longtime Hollywood residents, they spent their final weeks at John Knox Village.

Both had June birthdays — she in 1923, he in 1916 — marked their 65th wedding anniversary in May, and in July would have celebrated the dedication of the Schaefer Center for the Performing Arts at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., courtesy of a $7 million family gift.

Arts patrons and philanthropists, the couple made significant donations to The Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, the University of Miami, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, Miami Jewish Health System and Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami Beach.

The Schaefers sold Claire’s to a private equity firm in 2007, five years after Rowland suffered a stroke. At the time, the chain had 3,000 stores worldwide, said daughter Bonnie Shaefer, of North Carolina.

A self-made man, her father didn’t want to let the company go despite his age and infirmities, Bonnie Schaefer said, and “left to his own devices, he probably wouldn’t have sold it.’’

He also didn’t want to give up the car keys.

“We hired drivers to bring him to the office,’’ she said. “He’d fire them and I’d have to drive him home.’’

That kind of determination led Rowland Schaefer to spectacular business success and all of its perks, including a 106-foot yacht called the Lady Sylvia.

The World War II veteran started out with vending machines. But one day in the ’60s, Sylvia came home with a human-hair wig. That prompted Rowland to start a wig business. After the success of Fashion Tress Wigs, their company, FT Industries, branched out into manufacturing handbags and luggage for the Pierre Cardin label.

In the 1980s, Claire’s, headquartered in Pembroke Pines, began to evolve from wig boutique into the powerhouse mall staple it is now. By the time the Schaefers sold, it had sales topping $1 billion annually.

Along the way, Sylvia, once a fashion model, wrote a column in Good Housekeeping Magazine called “Sylvia Says.” She raised three daughters of her own as well as a son and daughter from Rowland’s first marriage. Bonnie recalls her half-siblings were 5 and 6 when their biological mother bowed out of their lives, so Sylvia became an “instant mother.’’

The family moved from Chicago to Miami Beach in 1953, later to a home on Diplomat Parkway.

Although she was closely involved with her husband’s businesses, “my mother deferred a lot to my father because those were the times,’’ Bonnie said. “She always said, ‘My money’s on him.’ She was the creative force.’’

Despite what they achieved, they never thought themselves wealthy, she added.

“My mother had that Depression-era mentality all of her life, and my father still looked at the business as a mom-and-pop operation.’’

Last year, the couple made news after a former housekeeper’s daughter tried to blackmail them by selling Schaefer family letters containing sensitive personal information unless she got $3 million.

Police foiled the plan.

In addition to daughter Bonnie, the Schaefers are survived by daughters Marla and Roberta. Rowland’s daughter Diane and son Ronald both died in recent years.

In lieu of flowers, donations in the Schaefer’s memories can be made to the Sylvia Schaefer Alzheimer’s Research Endowment at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, the Diabetes Research Institute, or the Mount Sinai Medical Center’s Wien Center for Alzheimer’s Disease and Memory Disorders.

Services for Rowland will be held at 11 a.m. Thursday at Temple Beth El of Boca Raton, 333 SW Fourth Ave., Boca Raton.

Bonnie said she believes her father was aware that his wife had died.

“We wheeled him in and he put his hand on hers and he held it tightly’’ in her final moments.

Rowland died at 5:34 a.m. Wednesday.

“It was so poetic and ironic, in that he left just before sun came up, in that interim moment between dark and light,’’ his daughter said.

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