The passing away of Ronald Urfirer, at age 93, brought back memories on my long friendship with his late father, Isadore "Pop" Urfirer. He never failed to take pride in his only son, Bob, and the achievements of his two grandsons.
Urfirer arrived in the United States in 1914, a 17-year-old youngster from Czarist Russia. He was filled with dreams and great expectations. But lacking the command of English, money and connections, he wound up in a button factory on New York East Side.
"It was a sweat shop, all right, "Urfirer recalled in an interview. "We worked 10 hours a day, seven days a week, for the salary of $3 a week. But in the neighborhood was a bar where one could have a beer and all the food you could eat for 5 cent. I didn't drink, so I gave my beer to someone and put away all the food I could manage without getting sick. And saved every penny that came my way."
The young immigrant made up his mind not to remain at the button factory. He signed up for night school, learned English, and watched out for opportunities.
But before he could make his move, World War I broke out, and Urfirer volunteered for the U.S. Army.
After the war, his young bride, Bessie, got sick and on her doctor's recommendation, the couple sought fresh air in the Adirondack Mountains. To make a living in the strange, new place, Urfirer took with him two suitcases filled with fine silk yard goods.
"I peddled the silk door to door. It was a hard way to make a living. But the people were friendly and helpful. After a while, they accepted us as part of their community. It wasn't long before I opened a tiny store on Main Street in Lake Placid and started to prosper."
When Bessie, who was a great cook, regained her health, the Urfirers opened a restaurant in the town. "It was open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, year-round. This was during the Great Depression, and to make a go of the place, we worked 20 hours a day. It was the whole secret of our success - just plain hard work," Urfirer said.
Eventually, Pop and Bessie owned many valuable building and property in town.
"I always had great confidence in this country of ours and in the future of this community. So I was never afraid to take out a first, second, third and God knows what kind of mortgage on properties. In the end I paid back all the loans, but it was a struggle all the way," he said.
Maybe it was those experiences that turned Pop into a one-man loan institution. That's a subject he seldom talked about, but people in the community don't dismiss its importance. They recall that when local servicemen returned from World War II and wanted to start a new business, banks were reluctant to provide loans without collateral or established credit. Many veterans turned to Urfirer, who would loan them money on a handshake.
Pop recalled, "I thought at that time it was the right thing to do. That's all. In the end I received back almost all the money I lent out. Except $3,000. And only because the man has fallen on hard times. That's why he never paid me back."
His philosophy about life made Pop a popular figure. "One should never lose sight of the fact that in a resort town, we just can't make a decent living out of each other. We need the influx of outside people and their money. Therefore, when somebody leaves a dollar or for that matter even a nickel at your place of business, always say "Thank you," with a smile. They will remember it."
Indeed, during the years that he sat behind the cash register at the restaurant, Urfirer always had a friendly word, a smile and some good advice for his customers. No wonder that many tourists regarded him the best goodwill ambassador Lake Placid ever had.
This American success story has an epilogue. Pop and Bessie's son, Roland, performed distinguished service in the U. S. Navy, graduated with honors from Harvard Law School and came home to practice law, becoming a leading attorney in Lake Placid.
Hollywood couldn't have written a more alluring script.