Wehlman realized big dreams in a small-town pharmacy

By CHARLEY WILKISON

Behind the counter at M&L Pharmacy are Larry Wehlman, Debra Papp and Carrola Glass.  (Photo by Charley Wilkison)

Behind the counter at M&L Pharmacy are Larry Wehlman, Debra Papp and Carrola Glass.
(Photo by Charley Wilkison)

When Larry Wehlman was 10 years old in downtown Rowena, Texas, he decided to become a pharmacist. But it wasn’t the root beer floats or the limeades of Schiller’s Pharmacy on Main Street that prompted his career choice. Instead, it was an important job helping sick people get better. Besides that, Larry witnessed firsthand the pharmacist making the medicine right there in the back of the drug store.

“In Rowena there was a building that had the doctor’s office on one end and the pharmacy was on the other,” says the co-owner of M&L Pharmacy in Liberty Hill, “and the doctor and the pharmacist were brothers.”

Larry doesn’t remember his family being particularly compelled by his 10-year-old career choice. Besides,  it was a long way from the cotton fields of West Texas to the University of Texas at Austin where pharmacists were trained.

After graduating from Ballinger High School, Larry headed to Austin with big plans to attend UT. But first he got a job so he could pay for tuition. It was a state government office called the Texas Checking Office, which worked with insurance companies on fire claims.

“It was my first time off the farm, and all of a sudden I’m making money. As the semesters passed without Larry enrolled at UT, he found himself working for insurance companies as a field agent and drifting further and further from his original dream. As time slipped away, Larry had met a beautiful girl named Jo and got married and before he knew it he had been working in the insurance business for 15 years.

And although his life was happy and fulfilled, during moments of reflection Larry would still think he should have been a pharmacist. Finally, Jo pushed him to go chase his dream.

“She just insisted we could make it on her teaching salary and that if I waited any longer I wouldn’t ever do it,” he said. So in 1976, he enrolled at then Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos. After his freshman year, he transferred to UT and graduated from the five-year program in 1980 by attending classes all year long and working part-time jobs to help pay for his tuition.

Larry went to work as a bona-fide pharmacist with Eckerd Drug in Austin. Later, he was transferred to Round Rock, then Georgetown where he met another pharmacist, Darrell “Mo” Moellenberndt, who worked at the only chain pharmacy in Georgetown — the Austin Avenue Eckerd’s Drug Store.

“It seemed like we were working day and night. There were more customers than there were hours in the day,” Larry said.

Larry and Mo decided that what Georgetown really needed was another pharmacy. Everyone liked them, surely the customers would follow their favorite pharmacists across town to a new store.

In 1985, the two friends opened the original M&L Pharmacy. They were barely in business when a new Medicine Shoppe pharmacy opened as well as the first HEB pharmacy. Larry and Mo discovered that the stream of customers switching drug stores didn’t happen quite like they had planned.

“Suddenly, there was competition everywhere,” Larry said. “We had made it as an independent drug store in Georgetown for three years.”

Jo was teaching second grade in Liberty Hill and they had built a home in Durham Park.

“We just decided to pack up and move to Liberty Hill where we knew the rent would be cheaper and there wouldn’t be any competition. It was the best move we ever made,” he said.

It was 1988 when they opened the original M&L Pharmacy in downtown Liberty Hill, later moving to their current location at 14871 W. State Highway 29 in 1990.

Sadly, his wife Jo passed away in 1994, but she lived to see her husband fulfill his dream and witness the pharmacy becoming financially successful. In 25 years, Larry and Mo have filled a lot of prescriptions, met a lot of families and become a local institution.

Larry feels very positive about the future of Liberty Hill and local businesses.

“From 1999 to 2008, we saw the local economy boom,” Larry said, “From ’08 to the present we haven’t seen the same level of rapid growth, but I think once the sewage lines are connected we’ll see lots more business moving in.”

Larry believes that will be a good thing overall for the citizens of Liberty Hill even though it will mean M&L will see more competition.

“CVS has already bought property, so the competitors will come,” he says with a grin that indicates he’s not worried. “We’re already in our third generation of serving Liberty Hill folks and those that want the person-to-person service will stay with us.”

Larry said he met a wonderful woman named Mary Chapman and re-married in 1998. She is a local girl who graduated from Liberty Hill High School. She recently retired after 40-plus years as a secretary in the Georgetown ISD. His daughter is grown and married and he has two granddaughters to brag about.

Being a pharmacist was Larry’s dream and he says it’s good.

“You know that feeling of being able to help someone in need, helping people get well and live their lives? We get to do that every day,” he says.

And when it doesn’t go well for the patient?

“Well, you feel the sorrow when someone gets seriously ill. We become so close to our customers, they’re right here,” he said.

Larry says he knew what he wanted to do and what he did not want to do.

“ I knew I didn’t want to pull that cotton sack up and down the rows,” he says, remembering. “I didn’t want to spend my life chopping cotton or picking it either.

“I guess it’s all turned out pretty good,” he said.