Renfrew County's largest paid circulation newspaper
Renfrew County's largest paid circulation newspaper
Killaloe -- The shoemaker and businessman known to his customers as simply “Benny” and who built a thriving business in a small village, drawing repeat customers from a large area who made visiting his store a priority, passed away last Wednesday, July 17.
He was an icon of the Killaloe community, a legendary figure for most of his 60 years in business and a man known far and wide for his unique personality and business acumen.
Benedict (Benny) Anthony Afelskie, the long-time proprietor of Afelskie Shoe’s in Killaloe and Barry’s Bay, died in St. Francis Memorial Hospital in Barry’s Bay where he had been a patient since mid February. Mr. Afelskie, who suffered from diabetes in his latter years, went into the hospital with infection in one of his feet. The infection later spread and eventually caused his death. He was 85.
To many, Benny Afelskie was “Mr. Killaloe” and to lose him is to lose a large piece of what makes the village special. For decades, his business has been the mainstay of the community and people travelled from miles around to shop at the store and to enjoy his unique and colourful wit and humour. Mr. Afelskie’s love for his business and customers was readily apparent. For over six decades, he could be found six days a week in the store. Taking a vacation was not a word in his vocabulary. Rather, he was content to enjoy a Thursday or part of the day going for drives to neighbouring communities with his late wife, Teresa, and then following her death in 2001 on his own, checking out similar businesses in other Valley towns, dropping in at the Leader office to chat with the staff and visit family members and friends.
Known to his family and legion of friends and loyal customers simply as Benny, he was the second generation in the family business which continues today in Killaloe under son, Shaun and in Barry’s Bay under son, David.
Mr. Afelskie’s success in business can be attributed to hard work, dedication and commitment, fair pricing and carrying a large stock. A man with very little formal education, and left without a father at the tender age of 10, he worked hard and used his natural ability to operate a business and to turn Afelskie Shoes into one of the most successful family-owned retail businesses in all of Renfrew County. He built his success on selection, quality and fair pricing.
His death leaves a void in the lives of many people and certainly brings to an end a very unique and colourful era in the history of Killaloe.
His father, Roman, a harness maker, opened a shop in Killaloe in 1921 on money he had borrowed from an area farmer. Within six years, he had grown the business and relocated to its present day location. Tragically, Mr. Afelskie and another resident of Killaloe, Philip Harrington, drowned in Golden Lake while fishing one night in October 1937, off of Black Point when their canoe overturned. He left his widow, Mary, to take over the operation of the store and raise their five children, including young Benny.
With the help of her brother, Joe Lorbetskie, a shoemaker who had worked with her husband since 1928, Mrs. Afelskie continued the business. Despite health problems, Mr. Lorbetskie, known as Shoemaker Joe, continued in the business until Benny joined him after taking a harness-making course in Ottawa. The young Benny learned the shoe repair craft from Mr. Lorbetskie and as he admitted on the occasion of his 80th birthday in 2007, “I got a little better at it, a little better at it”. When the farmers in the area, started to change from using horses to tractors, he sold the harness making part of the business to fellow Killaloe harness maker, Vern Brose, and continued in the shoe/boot business. Over the years, he expanded the business into
clothing and the business became known for its selection, fair pricing and customer service. His customer base extended well beyond the borders of Renfrew County. Each summer season, visitors and cottagers to the area made it a point to stop at and shop at Afelskies and his big two-day Labour Day weekend outdoor tent sale, which continues today, attracted large crowds of people who took advantage of the many excellent deals.
Mr. Afelskie also established strong ties with most of the sawmill and forestry workers in the area and sold a large volume of work boots and work clothing to them. Ontario Hydro workers, Ministry of Natural Resources personnel, Ministry of Transportation employees, construction workers -- most people who needed this kind of footwear and clothing -- made Afelskies their one-stop shop.
In addition to those lines, the Afelskie stores also carried casual clothing and footwear for all ages.
Hard work, good service and reinvesting in his own business made Afelskies the success story it became, but perhaps the element that will be remembered the most will be Benny’s infectious personality. Always willing to bend someone’s ear with one of his legendary tales, he could generally be seen around the shop, up until a decade ago, working away in a back corner where he repaired boots and shoes. But when there were people in the store, he put the repairs to the side and served his customers. He always took time to share stories with the people he knew and if he didn’t know someone, he wasn’t a bit shy about asking who they were, where they were from and what they were doing in Killaloe.
One of his favourite sayings was, “I’m Benny the Jew from Killaloe”, and he never meant that in any offensive way or with any malice. After all, he did most of his buying from Jewish boot and clothing salesmen for most of his years in business and no doubt he learned a thing or two about business from them. It wouldn’t be uncommon for the store to be filled with shoppers and for Benny to walk up to the cash where some goods had been placed on the counter and for him to say, “Is this your junk, Ma’am?”
When asked in one of his many interviews with the Leader what his secret to success was, he replied, “helping people out as much as he could.”
And helping people in need was something he did more than people will ever know. His kindness and generosity to so many people, done so quietly, was alluded to by Father Grant Neville in his homily at Saturday afternoon’s funeral mass in St. Andrew‘s Church. Standing in the line at the funeral home Friday night, an elderly woman, also there to pay her respects to the family, told him of the story of going to buy a pair of shoes for one of her many children. She would like to have purchased shoes for them all, but she told him she couldn’t afford it. However, when she was finished her shopping she said Mr. Afelskie had worked out a plan whereby she would be able to have shoes for them all.
“Benny was certainly a person people in our community would refer to as an icon, a person bigger than life,” he said. “We could even say that Benny was Killaloe. A very successful, loved and respected businessman in our area and beyond.”Mr. Afelskie had a keen appreciation for the value of life and the value of work.
“He understood the ordinary person and his or her struggles with life,” he said.
For many years, he repaired the shoes and boots for crippled children in the area at no cost.
“I had about 50 or 60 of these children and I never charged any of them,” he said, during
his 80th birthday interview.
He was also quick to extend credit to his customers who needed some help at times.
“In 40 years, I went over the bills and was only out $10,000,” he said as he was nearing retirement.
During his birthday celebration in 2007, he was asked about retirement. In his usual jovial way, he answered:
“I’ll stay until they carry me out, one way or the other. And I even asked them to wake me in the store. Just push the stuff aside. Open the door up and let them come in and buy . . .”
Mr. Afelskie was a natural entertainer and most of his customers loved his humour. Sometimes, however, visitors to the area or first-time customers to the store might have wondered about his sanity.
There were also days near the end of the week when Mr. Afelskie would cash as many or more cheques than the local bank. He was kind-hearted and always stepped up to the plate to help families in distress, particularly those who were experiencing hard times or a tragedy such as the loss of the family home by fire.
Son Shaun said a lot of people dropped into the Killaloe store following his death to share memories of his father. He recalled the story of one young man heading north to work and needing work clothes and boots.
“Take the stuff and pay me when get yourself established,” Benny told the young man.
When the “hippy” movement into the Madawaska Valley started in the late 1960s, Mr. Afelskie quickly established friendships with most of the newcomers and extended them credit. He noted many times in discussions that they always paid their bills.
Fellow Killaloe businessman and life-long friend Garnet Kranz said Mr. Afelskie served his community really well.
“He gave excellent service and the quality of his products was in the top 20 per cent and his price was fair,” Mr. Kranz said. “And what more can you say?”
Ish Theilheimer, producer of Stone Fence Theatre, recalled how Mr. Afelskie was a lifeline for many a poor family in the area.
“If your kid needed boots, you got boots,” he said. “If you needed jeans, you got jeans. “And he rolled out the welcome mat to this community for many a newcomer like me. I'm proud that I could call him a friend.
“Benny, as much as anyone, introduced me to the Ottawa Valley, with his long, winding stories and irrepressible sense of humour, not to mention his dedication to hard work, honest business and helping people,” Mr. Theilheimer said.Stone Fence Theatre produced a show about Benny in 2008, and Mr. Theilheimer and others spent a good deal of time with Mr. Afelskie that year exchanging stories.
“It was a lot of fun and an amazing education,” he said. “John Haslam, one of our artists, wrote a beautiful song about Benny called "60 Years," and it's wonderful that the family has asked John to sing it at Benny’s funeral.
“Their request is a sign of the kind of positive exchange between newcomers to the Valley and the people raised here that has taken place for years. Benny was a leader in that positive exchange. All the people who walked through the doors he opened will miss him keenly.”
Killaloe, Hagarty and Richards Mayor Janice Visneskie has many fond memories of Mr. Afelskie dating back to her youth.
“I met ‘Mr. Killaloe’ or Benny when I was a young girl,” she said. “My parents, Basil and Theresa, had a great regard for Benny and his business.
“My Mom loved shopping there,” she added.
Mayor Visneskie said Mr. Afelskie would always offer her mother a discount off her purchase
and no matter how big or small the discount was, she always felt she had received a great deal from Benny.
“She shopped there for both our family and the Visneskie business,” she recalled. “Benny’s humour and knowledge of local history always made shopping there a fun experience.
“As I grew up, I too shopped there and Benny always made me feel welcome and offered me those discounts as well,” she added. “He fixed my family’s shoes, sharpened our skates and showed me the tools of his trade, for repairing shoes, saying they were old but reliable.”
Mayor Visneskie recalled being at an appointment at the Ottawa General Hospital where she struck up a conversation with another couple who asked where she was from.
When she replied Killaloe, they told her they lived in Ottawa, but came to Killaloe for Fall Fair days to shop at Afelskies.
“They told me they got to know Benny and always tried to make it for the great deals he offered. He was known far and wide as a great businessman and human being.
“Benny we will all miss you,” she continued. “Our community is saddened by his passing and on behalf of the township and my husband, Leslie, I want to offer my deepest condolences to the Afelskie family.”
Mr. Afelskie was predeceased by his wife, Teresa Sullivan, in 2001. He is survived by sons David (Florence) Chuck (Marion) and Shaun (Beth), and daughters Tammy (Bob Albert), Mary Lyn (Sylvester) Madigan and Cindy (Saul) Mogelonsky. There are also 10 grandchildren.
All of Mr. Afleskie’s 10 grandchildren participated in the funeral mass. Pall-bearers were Matthew. Troy and Amy Madigan, and Andrew, Jeff and Paige Afelskie.
Readers were Mandy and Hollie Afelskie. Kendra Afelskie gave a beautiful eulogy in which she captured the Benny Afelskie we all knew so well and which appears elsewhere in the Leader. Granddaughter Kayla Afelskie and daughter Cindy presented the offertory gifts.
By Gerald Tracy
“Mr. Killaloe” Benny Afelskie Dies
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