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NewsTribune photo/Amanda Whitlock Chester Kmieciak laughs while retelling stories of the old days. Kmieciak, who turned 100 over the weekend, continues to work in his shoe repair shop on Eighth Street in La Salle most days.
After more than 70 years on the job, one of the area’s last shoe repairmen isn’t ready to put down his tools yet. Chester Kmieciak turned 100 on Sunday but he keeps opening his shoe repair shop on Eighth Street in La Salle almost every morning. Although just a small fraction of the time Kmieciak has been working, this reporter has known him for more than a decade. As a teenager, I’d spend summer afternoons with his grandson, Nate Skoflanc, buying Jarritos across the street at El Amigo Grill before visiting with Kmieciak and his wife, Ann. In college, he was the focus of a short documentary I produced, and as a NewsTribune reporter, I’ve interviewed him on a number of occasions. Over those years his stories have begun to run together. Tales of going off to World War II before returning to La Salle and taking over his father’s business and stories of days spent working with a hammer in one hand and a sandwich in the other in an age before plastic- and rubber-based shoes became dominant, back when you couldn’t find a parking spot on Eighth Street and parades occasionally marched down the street. While those stories will always be interesting, it’s his spirit that is most remarkable. His body may not be as healthy as it was when I first met him and his hearing has certainly faltered, but he’s just as joyful as ever. I once asked him if he ever planned to retire. With his always-ready laugh he told me, “I retire every night.” His humor and vigor hasn’t changed much. When I recently reminded him of that comment, he said the only difference is now “I retire a lot of times during the day, too.” Kmieciak’s shop is filled with shoes and mementos of the past. Many of the tools and machines he uses have been around since his father was in charge. With the change in shoe materials over the past century, he’s not as busy as he used to be, but he gets enough work to keep him active. “You couldn’t make a living at it anymore,” he said. Kmieciak still oversees the shop’s bills, and his son-in-law, Mike Skoflanc, drops in a few days each week to help with the projects Kmieciak’s eyesight and decreased strength keep him from completing. During his prime, Kmieciak’s shop was just one of about a dozen in the area. Since those others have closed, he occasionally gets new customers looking for help, although prices have changed over the years. “When I started I put on a pair of women’s top lifts (small heels) for 35 cents,” he said. “A pair of men’s soles for a dollar and a half.” Those same heels would cost closer to $10 today, he said. “I used to get polish for 10 cents a can,” Kmieciak added, noting that in those days you could get a lot for a dime — even a 32 ounce glass of beer. After decades of repairing shoes, he has sore shoulders and hands. Nevertheless, he’s still quick with a funny comment or story. He credits remaining active for his longevity. Kmieciak also recommends a diet likely influenced by his Italian wife: garlic, olive oil, hot peppers and some wine. “I think it’s his attitude,” his daughter, Francie Skoflanc, said. “He doesn’t worry about the things he doesn’t have control over.” She said both of her parents, who still live on their own, remain as active as they can. “They’re pretty independent… They don’t want to rely on somebody,” she said. For his birthday, Kmieciak was planning to have a favorite dessert from his childhood, banana cream pie.
Posted: Sunday, February 24, 2013
Article comment by:
A big thank you for many years of fun, reliable service, and dedication to the community. Both Chester and his wife (name?) are much appreciated and honored. And thanks to the children who carry on the passion and service to all.
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