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Fay's Panasci, industry icon, is dead at 76.

Someone once asked an American composer to describe Irving Berlin's place in American music. "Irving Berlin," he answered, "is American music." In a similar sense, Henry Panasci, who died on April 17 at the age of 76, was the chain drug industry in America. Over a career that spanned 40 years, he founded and built one of the nation's legendary drug chains, selling it to J.C. Penney Co. in 1996, when he came to believe he could no longer compete in the mass retailing industry that had evolved in the America of the late 20th century.

At its sale, Fay's Drug--the drug chain Panasci founded in 1958, naming it after his wife Faye though dropping one letter to save money on signing--was the country's 12th-largest drug chain, with annual sales of over $1 billion. By way of comparison, Walgreens, the industry volume leader at the time, recorded only $11.8 billion in sales.

Along the way, Panasci became an industry leader, joining the National Association of Chain Drug Stores shortly after entering the chain drug store business, ascending its leadership ladder before being elected NACDS chairman in 1983. Over the same period he joined Affiliated Drug Stores, one of the chain drug industry's two major buying organizations during the middle decades of the last century, bringing to that group a sense of excitement and purpose that mirrored the impact his drug chain had begun to exert on the upstate New York communities in which it operated.

In the end, Fay's Drug became synonymous with all that was exciting, dramatic and innovative in chain drug retailing as it was practiced in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, just as Panasci came to epitomize all that was exciting, creative and bold in a chain drug executive.

Henry Panasci grew up in upstate New York, a region he never left. After obtaining his pharmacy degree from the University of Buffalo in 1952, he went to work for his uncle Carl Panasci, who ran a successful regional drug chain headquartered in the upstate community of Rome. He found out very quickly, however, that he could not spend the rest of his life as an employee, even if his employer was a relative.

"Leaving Carl was the most difficult decision I ever had to make," Panasci remembered years later. "You just didn't do that in an Italian family. Several relatives stopped speaking to me. But I knew what I wanted. And I was also stubborn."

Many years later, Panasci crowned his retailing career by buying the Carl's drug chain from his uncle's family.

The drug chain Panasci founded quickly became one of the most exciting anywhere. Copying the superstore formats he had seen successfully executed at such West Coast drug chains as Longs and Sav-on, he opened stores of 15,000 and 20,000 square feet, stocked them with all manner of general merchandise and saw them catch on as general stores in the small communities that, with pharmacy as their anchor, they quickly came to dominate.

As well, he attracted a group of talented managers to help him run the chain, most notably Dan Herrmann, the legendary merchant who transformed Panasci's vision into the most exciting retail outlets on the East Coast. Toward the end of their careers, Panasci and Herrmann parted ways, a parting Panasci later maintained was both painful and ill-considered.

"Dan Herrmann was the most creative merchant I ever knew," he remarked upon reflection, "and one of the true friendships I made in my life."

In truth, Panasci had very few regrets. While building Fay's, he found ample time to enjoy life. A man with a wide and diverse range of interests, he became during his retailing career a director of the New York City Opera, chairman of the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra and a trustee of Everson Museum, Syracuse University, LeMoyne College and Elmira College. He loved the arts, sports and politics, and once entertained the idea of running for Congress, a notion from which his wife Faye quickly dissuaded him.

He loved travel, touring Europe and especially Italy, his family's homeland, regularly, and going so far as to convince himself that he had mastered Italian. As those who traveled with him can attest with certainty, Italian was one thing he never mastered.

Mostly, he loved his family. When he started Fay's Drug, he made his father his partner, and the elder Panasci remained an integral part of the company until shortly before his death at the age of 95.

Then there was Faye. Someone once noted that, as well as being capable, Henry Panasci was incredibly lucky, and that anyone doubting that need only meet Faye--once. She loved him, indulged him, tolerated his flights of fancy, knew instinctively when to encourage him and when--as during his congressional engrossment--to firmly say no.

For his part, Panasci relied on Faye as he relied on no one else. He rarely did anything without consulting her. For her part, confronted with a new idea, a fresh whim, a novel program for work, home, vacation or travel, she invariably encouraged even his airiest instincts. Through a lifetime Henry and Faye Panasci were not a couple--they were the couple.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Henry Panasci had fun. Those who knew him best laughed longest and enjoyed him most. Those who traveled with him reveled in recounting their experiences, sharply recalling each day, each minute, each incident, and enjoying the memory as they enjoyed the event.

Sadly, those who never knew Henry Panasci never will. But those who did can linger over the memories of knowing someone who comes along once in a great while, someone who built and transformed an industry while touching those both within and outside that industry in ways too numerous to recount and too precious to ever let go of.
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Title Annotation:Remembrance; Henry Panasci; chain drug industry
Author:Pinto, David
Publication:Chain Drug Review
Article Type:Obituary
Date:May 2, 2005
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