Staying involved no matter the age

At age 99, Erv Safranek continues to make an impact on the Paw Paw community. Safranek, who moved to Paw Paw when he was five in 1929 to make him a town resident for the last 94 years, has been a member of the Paw Paw Lions Club and the Paw Paw United Methodist Church for 77 years. If something has happened or changed in Paw Paw, there is a good chance Safranek was involved. Brandon LaChance/Amboy News

PAW PAW – The cliche “I’ve forgotten more than you know,” doesn’t work for Erv Safranek.

Not only does he know, but he hasn’t forgotten.

Safranek, born in 1924 and turned 99 on July 21, still remembers moving to Paw Paw at age 5 in 1929 when the streets were still made of mud. 

Along the way, he remembers the changes, the societal adjustments, and the charity done in the community; a lot of which involved or was accomplished by Safranek.

“It’s funny how you’re called to help people. I’m glad to be involved. Over the years I’ve seen some big changes in Paw Paw,” said Safranek, who graduated from the now defunt Paw Paw High School in 1943 in a class of 15 students. “When we moved to Paw Paw in the fall of 1929, Main Street was mud. The next year they got concrete. I remember seeing the deep ruts. The cars parked in the center of the road and cars drove next to the edge of the sidewalk; the opposite of what it is now. There were still farmers who came into town with horse and buggy.” 

After being drafted in the Navy before his high school graduation, Safranek served on the seas of the North Atlantic (1943), the Mediterranean (1944), and the South Pacific (1945) during World War II.

He has lived in his Paw Paw home since 1958 where him and his late wife Agnes raised two boys, Gary and Craig, who live in Mendota and Paw Paw, respectively.

To this day, he has been a civic and communal servant to the community as he has been involved with the Paw Paw United Methodist Church and the Paw Paw Lions Club for 77 years each.

He’s also helped buildings, landscape, organizations, businesses, and people in other ways.

“I’ve been part of a lot of things but the one that stands out the most happened four years ago,” Safranek said. “We had a young mother with four kids who got an apartment in Paw Paw. They didn’t have anything. One Saturday morning, my neighbor called me from the food pantry and said, ‘Erv, I have a single mother in town who needs food. I have to work today; can you get her and bring her?’ 

“I took her that day and filled the trunk full of groceries for her and the kids. You wouldn’t believe the stories that she told me. She wasn’t married but was living with a guy in Chicago and he mistreated her. She said it wouldn’t be a week that went by that her eyes weren’t black and blue. She packed up one day and left.

“The oldest of her four children was only eight. The youngest was a baby. The kids were sleeping on the floor. The next day, I decided I was going to get the kids some beds. They didn’t have a radio, so I gave her one of my good radios, so they at least had something to listen to. I bought a couple of games like Monopoly, so they had something to do.”

Safranek only spoke about the matter to two places, the Methodist Church and the Lions Club.

He was blown away by the amount of help he was able to receive for a family in need.

“I was able to raise enough money to get two sets of bunk beds, two sets of sheets and pillow cases, two large dressers, a beautiful bed room set for her, a platform rocker, floor lamps, and a nice TV – with a year subscription – and curtains and drapery to replace the rags that were over the windows,” Safranek said. “I had over $4,000 to buy her that stuff.  

“Those kids were so excited to get those beds. They were watching us put them together. When we were done, they ran to them. I still think about how happy those kids were from time to time.” 

When asking Safranek to list projects he’s worked on in Paw Paw, he gets shy or timid because he doesn’t want to brag or act like he is the only one who has helped.

Instead, other’s in the Paw Paw community will do it for him because they see what he means to the village.

“My husband Ed (Despain) and I have known Erv our entire lives,” said Judy Despain, who has lived in Paw Paw for 61 years and her husband even longer. “He does so much for the Lions Club and the church. He makes the potato salad for Mendota Area Senior Services. He’s known as the ‘Best potato salad maker there is’. His generosity is unmatched. He gives so much to the Mendota Garden Club.

“He’s just an amazing man. He’s 99 and is still doing all these things. He does so much for the community and if someone needs help, he’s there to help them.”

Safranek began $3 breakfast every Wednesday at the church. He only wanted to charge enough for the food. Over the first three years, he gave over $4,000 to the church.

This year, his crew and him (he can’t do as much as he once did because of his age) are going to start on Sept. 6, the Wednesday after Labor Day.

The living legend owned and operated the grocery store in Paw Paw for 71 years before selling the building and business in 2000.

While running his own business, he kept up with Paw Paw’s needs and wants.

“I started the flags on Main Street. I purchased all the flags and the flag poles before I turned it over to the village,” Safranek said. “We shortened the sidewalk on the same side of the street that the grocery store is on to avoid parallel parking. 

“I was responsible for getting the funding for the fence at Rogers Park. It keeps the kids from running directly into the street. The beautiful stone at the cemetery that reads Wyoming Cemetery and the gazebo in the other park, I’m responsible for the funding.”

When Erv’s father Joseph came to the states from Czechoslovakia as the son of his aunt and uncle so he could make it past border patrol, and his mother Sophie came a few years later, they didn’t know what kind of kid they were raising. 

Joseph was proud of his son when they were building the grocery store in 1952 and one could bet high odds that both mom and dad are beaming from above as their son was, is, and forever will be a man his family, friends and an entire community depend on.