For Jim Erb, the kitchen table is more than just a place to eat. It’s a metaphor for developing relationships, connecting people and building a stronger community.
The Guest of Honour at the 24th Annual Mayors’ Dinner is perhaps best known for his years of service as an employee, later partner and owner, of Erb & Good Family Funeral Home, and also as a Waterloo city councillor for eight years in the 1980s.
His community work goes much further than that. Jim, 63, has been a Rotarian for 27 years, where he’s led the donations committee, the Dream Home lottery and the group study exchange. Since 2008, he has chaired the annual Turkey Dive, which raises more than $250,000 a year to support the House of Friendship’s Christmas Hamper Project.
His other contributions over the years are almost too numerous to list: founding chair of the Wellesley Apple Butter & Cheese Festival; president of the Wellesley & District Board of Trade; founding board member of Habitat for Humanity Waterloo Region, as well as board member and treasurer of the national organization; president of the Centre for Family Business; chair of the Ontario Board of Funeral Service; an active Big Brother for 14 years, president of the Kitchener Waterloo Council of Churches, co-ordinator of the Kitchener Waterloo Community Prayer Breakfast, and member of numerous interfaith initiatives, to name just a few.
In his humble way, Jim says he just does what he does every day: extending the table to others, talking to people, shaping an environment where people can speak to and understand one another, building trust and rapport.
What led Jim on his life path? Growing up in a tradition that emphasized a simple lifestyle, uncomplicated faith and generosity is a big part of it. Jim can trace his Mennonite roots back several generations, from the Alsace Lorraine area in Europe, to Pennsylvania, then to Wellesley. (“Eight Old Order families set out from Pennsylvania,” says Jim. “Seven went to Nebraska, and one to Ontario.”)
His great grandfather was a blacksmith; he eventually opened a farm machinery dealership in Wellesley, which became the family business.
Jim’s parents, Albert and Irene, were a big influence. Irene was active in the family business. Albert served on community groups, the Board of Trade, and was later the mayor of Wellesley for 13 years. After the death of Jim’s grandfather Menno, Grandma Salome came to live with the family. She suffered from severe arthritis, but “we never considered putting her in a home,” Jim recalls. “It was just part of the tradition to look after one another.”
There were many similar examples that shaped Jim’s life. There are two that stand out.
He clearly remembers a day when he was about 13, working part-time at the dealership, when a local farmer came in to look at a second hand piece of equipment that he desperately needed for his farm. Albert knew the man’s situation, that the man could not really afford the item. When the farmer offered the full price of $150, Albert insisted on selling it to him for $100. “That act of generosity has always stayed with me,” Jim says. “Helping that man when he was down was more important for my father than making a profit.”
The other happened earlier, in 1955, when Menno died. Jim was only eight years old at the time. Staff from the funeral home came to pick up the body. After embalming and dressing him, they brought the body back to the family home – the custom at the time – for viewing. “During the visitation time at our home, my cousins and I ran around playing as if nothing had happened – it was just a family get-together. However, something did happen for me. I was fascinated by the men who came and gently lifted his body from the bed where he died, and then brought him back the next day all dressed up, in a shiny oak coffin. I remember thinking to myself, ‘That’s what I’m going to do when I grow up.’”
As a teenager, Jim got a part-time job at the Futher Funeral Home up the street, washing cars, cleaning toilets, delivering furniture and mowing lawns. “The rest is history. More than 40 years later, I am still mowing lawns, washing cars and moving furniture,” he notes.
After high school, Jim studied at the Canadian School of Embalming in Toronto. He returned to Wellesley, but he couldn’t pass up an opportunity to work with Ed Good in Waterloo in 1969. That is where he made his career ever since.
The personal and caring service provided by Erb & Good is well known in the community. Since death happens in all families, rich and poor, it is essential to provide compassionate care for all when they are most vulnerable, Jim says. That includes AfterCare, since grief does not end with the funeral. Erb & Good has had AfterCare services, such as bereavement groups and on-staff grief counsellors, for more than 20 years.
Following his parents’ example, Jim also participated actively in community and civic organizations. In 1980, he was elected to Waterloo City Council. While some may use municipal politics as a springboard to running for office at higher levels, Jim always had his sights set on the community here. “I felt it was an opportunity to help make positive change,” he recalls. After serving for eight years, Jim wanted to spend more time with his young family, but it did not mark an end to his community or political involvement.
Through his volunteer work and his career, Jim met some very important people. In the early 1970s, he became a Big Brother to Rudy, who was seven at the time.
One fateful day, Jim made a routine trip to a beauty parlour to pick up some hair products for use at the funeral home. He met Marianne, one of the hairstylists there. It didn’t take long for the two to begin a relationship. They got married in 1976; Rudy was the ring bearer. Soon after, Rudy became part of the family. Dave was born in 1977, and Mike followed in 1980.
The family has grown. Jim and Marianne now have six grandchildren, who all visit for dinner most Thursdays. Many family dinners also include their three sons and their partners. The kitchen table has never diminished in importance.
The table work continues, maybe even more so since Jim has scaled down his formal involvement at Erb & Good. Particularly close to his heart is his participation in interfaith activities in the community, bringing diverse groups together to find common ground, develop trust and create a more respectful and inclusive community.
Jim is also well known for his efforts in a group that favours regional amalgamation, and he is well aware that it is a controversial issue. There are ardent supporters and ardent opponents. Jim respects everyone’s opinion, regardless of where they come down on the issue. After growing up in small town Wellesley and living for more than 40 years in Waterloo, he advocates what he thinks is best for both rural improvement and the urban good.
There is one key component to everything Jim does. “No matter what you’re doing, you have to live your values every day, and share them with other people.”