Longtime friends and residents recalled one of the pillars of downtown Darien’s development into a commercial area, Darien Sports Shop founder Stephen Zangrillo, who died at the age of 91 earlier this month.

Zangrillo founded the store on Post Road in 1946 after returning from serving in the U.S. Army in World War II. He eventually moved it from its original location to 1127 Post Road, where it has grown from a one to three-story business selling apparel, sporting goods, and other items, according to his daughter, Gina Zangrillo, who now runs the store.

As a young veteran returning from the war, Zangrillo said her father hitchhiked back and forth between Darien and Stamford to work at Pitney Bowes before starting the sporting goods store in a 1,000-square-foot space.

Zangrillo and others recalled her father’s dedication to the his hometown, his attention to the needs of customers, and work ethic that helped ensure the store’s growth and success.

“He had a knack of building relationships with customers and could watch what people wore or carried and go after trends. If he believed in a motto, it might have been, ‘you should go big or go home,’” Gina Zangrillo said. “But he was also a great guy, who gave to anyone who called whatever he could. He gave back, and in those days people were very loyal because of it.”

Dan Dolcetti Jr., whose family bought and developed swaths of downtown into commercial space during the 20th century, said the growth of Zangrillo’s business debunked town leaders’ belief that

residents didn’t want retail businesses in the center of Darien.

In the close-knit community of first- and second-generation Italian immigrants, it was Dolcetti’s grandmother who rented Zangrillo the first space for the store, he said.

“He was a real pathfinder to put in a store like that and because he was well known and people respected him they allowed him to do it ,” Dolcetti said.

Properties they developed included the current location of Brooks Brothers and First County Bank, Dolcetti said.

Before Zangrillo set up shop, the sparsely developed downtown included a disparate collection of businesses like a shoemaker, a lumberyard, a gas station and a grocery; but mostly lacked retail.

“It just went wild because there was such a pent-up demand for people wanting to shop in Darien,” Dolcetti said. “He was a real forerunner of the way Darien would change and become a more business-oriented town.”

Zangrillo was also a charter member of the Country Club of Darien in 1956, where he was the first men’s golf club champion in 1957 and also served as the president of the Darien Chamber of Commerce in 1960 and donated the first ambulance to Post 53 in 1976.

Zangrillo has hosted an annual Christmas tree lighting in the shop’s parking lot since 1978, and when the 100-foot tree had to be removed in 2009 due to storm damage, he had a new tree planted so the tradition could continue unbroken, Gina Zangrillo said.

Zangrillo never failed to make a good impression on Robert L Dilenschneider, a Darien resident for 19 years who said he frequently witnessed acts of Zangrillo’s kindness either around their waterfront neighborhood or downtown semi-weekly.

“Darien, Fairfield County, Connecticut, and the United States have lost a great man,” Robert L. Dilenschneider said.

Dilenschneider remembered his first visit to the sports shop on a hot July day and seeing Zangrillo in his trademark three-piece suit greeting customers. Zangrillo greeted Dilenschneider warmly that day, and always remained incredibly consistent in his treatment of customers and other store visitors.

“He handled customer relations like nobody in my area could and he made you feel like a million bucks,” Dilenschneider said. “He always handled things in about as positive a way as you could ever imagine.”

Dilenschneider said he was impressed by Zangrillo’s response when he asked the sports shop owner about a plan to build a pocket park with a fountain near the Post Road entrance to the store.

“I said to him, ‘Steve that’s very valuable land,’ and he said, ‘I’ve always wanted to have a park with a fountain like this,’” Dilenschneider said. “He cared a great deal about Darien.”

Gerald A. Nielsen Jr., a Republican selectman and principal of the commercial real estate Nielsen Co., said the sports shop remains an important part of growing up in Darien because the Zangrillo interwove the business into the community.

Nielsen recalled how Zangrillo always knew how to treat the people of the town, and conveyed an authentic concern and interest in customers who came into the store.

“Anyone who grew up in Darien knew him and he touched all our lives in so many different ways,” Nielsen said. “You would go in there and he always knew what was going on in your life and make you feel special.”