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‘Oh, he was a good man’ — 103-year-old owner of Harry’s Hot Dogs dies

Harry Heftman formerly Harry's Hot Dogs was later restaurant greeter East Edens Cicero Devon. | Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times

Harry Heftman, formerly of Harry's Hot Dogs, was later a restaurant greeter at East of Edens at Cicero and Devon. | Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times

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Updated: February 19, 2013 1:59PM

Be friendly. Enjoy life. Love your family. Be good to people. Sell them a hot dog, if they’ve got money. If they don’t, just give them the hot dog — maybe they’ll buy a hot dog some other time.

The truths that defined Harry Heftman’s life were neither deep nor complicated. He was not rich, or famous, at least not famous beyond the regular customers of the hot dog stand he ran for 55 years at the corner of Randolph and Franklin.

But these truths served him well, during a very long life that ended quietly Wednesday at his home in Skokie, surrounded by his children. Harry Heftman was 103 years old.

He owned Harry’s Hot Dogs, greeting countless Chicagoans, serving them wieners and wisdom, hash browns and hellos.

“Let me give you a good hot dog,” he said, in his distinctive raspy voice, to a new customer in 2000. “I give people hot dogs all the time. I never turn anybody away. Everybody walks out happy.”

Heftman was a small man, physically — maybe 5 feet tall, maybe 90 pounds, his head barely clearing the poppy seed buns stacked on the counter. But he had a very big heart and was a giant of common sense.

“Money means nothing,” he once said. “Peace of mind! Peace of mind is worth more than any amount of money.”

Heftman opened the Little Snack Shop in 1954 in the four-story building on the northwest corner of Randolph and Franklin, home to the Showmen’s League of America, the national organization for carnival workers and circus performers, of which he was a proud member. The dark gray building was distinctive for its small elephant sculptures, trunks raised in joy, decorating each of the 24 windows, and for the mustard-yellow awnings of Harry’s Hot Dog’s — he changed the name in 1982 — on the ground floor.

Heftman worried about his customers — when a fire damaged the building in 2003, and the hot dog stand had to close for a few weeks, he posted a sign on the front door that read, in essence: Don’t worry; we’ll be back soon; It’s not as bad as it looks — something of a life philosophy for Harry.

When John Buck built the 42-story 155 W. Wacker next door and wanted the land under Harry’s, some urged Heftman to fight.

But Heftman decided it was time to close. He was, after all, 100 years old. Instead he had a big birthday party, with cake and hot dogs and TV cameras. The president of Vienna Hot Dogs came. Mayor Richard M. Daley showed up too and ate a hot dog.

“My father used to come here,” Daley said.

There is a lovely pocket park there now, with blaze maples and pear trees.

After two weeks of retirement, Heftman grew restless and went to work as a greeter at East of Edens Restaurant, which had bought some of his store’s fixtures. “It’s better to work than to stay home,” he said.

There he enjoyed a golden twilight of greeting customers, bringing them napkins or cups of water, of welcoming and being welcomed. He celebrated his 101st, 102nd and 103rd birthday at East of Edens.

He was hired by owner Peter Spyropoulos.

“Oh, he was a good man,” said Spyropoulos. “Nobody can replace Harry. They don’t make them like him any more. Positive attitude. Belief in work. People like that don’t exist any more. He loved life, and he loved people. He was full of life until the last minute. Part of our life is missing.”

Spyropoulos noted that Heftman’s last paycheck is still at the restaurant.

“We need an address for heaven,” he said.

Heftman was born March 15, 1909 in Sojmy, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, now the Ukraine. He recalled the tall fur hats of Cossacks rampaging in his village.

“Keep your eyes open,” Heftman once said.

His father, Herman, emigrated to Chicago before Harry was born, where he became a peddler. The two never met until Harry was 12, in 1921, when he, his mother, Rose, and her two other children followed — they traveled by horse to the coast. Harry always remembered how they slept in barns. The reunited family lived near Division and Western.

“A good family gives you energy, to work for,” Harry Heftman once said.

While in his early 20s, Heftman met Perle Warshawsky at a dance benefiting the Consumptive Aid Society at the Sherman Hotel. They were married for 66 years. She died in 2007, in his arms, his cheek against hers. The next week he returned to work.

“It’s a beautiful day,” he said, back among the blue laminate booths. “You have to live on, you know. Life has to go on.”

Survivors include his sons Chuck and Ron; daughter, Lila Ardell; five grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. Services are Friday at 10 a.m. at Weinstein Funeral Home, 111 Skokie Blvd, Wilmette.

“You make one person happy,” Harry Heftman once said, “it comes back to you.”

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