By Erica McCrystal
Between coaching baseball, running town committees, organizing parades, and owning a small business, Robert Ranft, 80, has done it all.
Robert “Bob” Ranft is a decorated member of the Denville community who has been active in the town his entire life. He was born in 1938 at Dover General to Robert Ranft—who also grew up in Denville—and Kathryn Ranft. He grew up with two brothers and a sister. He has lived in Denville his entire life and finds the town has so much to offer.
“It’s a nice, small town to grow up in and to raise kids in,” says Ranft. “There’s a lot of people who do volunteer work for the town in various capacities. And it’s in a good physical location. You can get to the city if you wanna go in there easily. Or you can go west towards Sussex County and Pennsylvania where it’s more rural.”
He also praises the town’s “excellent education system.” And he should know. Aside from attending Denville Main Street School and Morris Hills High School himself, he and his wife, Patricia, 76, raised five children in town—Mindy, Rick, Debbie, Bob and Theresa. The Ranfts also have eight grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. Ranft and Patricia celebrate their 59th wedding anniversary next month.
Everybody in the family lives in Morris County except one. One granddaughter lives in San Diego, but between visits and phone calls, “while she’s not here, she is in a way,” remarks Ranft. For his 80th birthday, his kids took him to France to visit the gravesite of his great-uncle who was killed in World War I at age 21.
“That was something I wanted to do for years and years,” he says.
“It used to be, when I was growing up, more of a blue collar town,” says Ranft. “And now there’s a lot of people that commute into the city, work for Wall Street, insurance companies, and things of that sort.” He also remembers the social scene being different too. The “working man’s bars” are gone and have been “replaced by more upscale restaurants.”
In his early 30s, Ranft went on to higher education, earning his assocate’s in humanities and social science from the County College of Morris, his bachelor’s in history and sociology from Fairleigh Dickinson University, and his master’s in social science with a concentration in sociology and history from Montclair State University.
Currently, he owns Denville Vacuum & Appliance, located on Broadway.
“Originally the business was a family business that my father had started in 1948,” says Ranft. “And then in 1980, my father retired, and my brother and I took over the business, and then we split it in 1980 into two different businesses.”
His brother Donald took the major appliances part of the business and ran a store in Rockaway. Ranft took the vacuum part since he had put them into the vacuum business in the 1970s. Donald is now retired, but Ranft is still in business. His wife and his daughter Debbie work with him at the store.
“Originally, when my father started the business, he repaired radios, phonographs, car radios, things like that, and then when he decided to go into the retail end of it, he started with radios, phonographs, and when televisions became popular, televisions, and also, we sold music,” Ranft remembers. When he and his brother split the business, the music department stayed with him.
“We call that Broadway Record Shop,” he says. “We sell records and CDs in the middle of the vacuum store.”
What’s sure to be a unique experience, customers can shop for new vinyl LPs and CDs while dropping off an appliance for repair. They sell a variety of music, including Irish music and Americana.
Ranft finds rewards in running a small business.
“You have your independence,” he says. “You don’t have a boss telling you what to do.”
But there are also challenges.
“Your income is dependent on that business, and today, it’s getting harder and harder with Amazon, high taxes, and everything,” he says.
Even with the demands of running a small business, Ranft has put in countless hours of volunteer work in town. This all began with baseball.
“I’ve been involved with the Denville Youth Baseball program from 1966 to the present,” Ranft says. Ranft coached his sons and a grandson through local programs.
“I’ve coached baseball for over 50 years,” he says. “I was past president of Denville Little League. I coached at Morris Catholic for about 14 years.” He was the varsity baseball coach there for 12 years. Coaching kids from ages 9 to 18, Ranft coached American Legion, USADL, fall ball, tournament teams, little league and senior league. In 1988, he coached his son Rick on the Denville Baseball Tournament team. He brought the team to a state championship, the first one a Denville team had won since Denville baseball began back in 1951.
“That was really a neat accomplishment,” says Ranft.
At the opening day ceremonies each year, Denville Baseball gives a special recognition to an individual. “I have been honored with throwing out the first pitch three times,” says Ranft. “The second one was very special” because “the catcher was my then 9-year-old grandson, Will.”
Two years ago, he decided to stop coaching. He says that he’s using his free Sundays as an opportunity to spend more time with his wife. When he was coaching, Patricia would have to run the business during the time that he was gone. Leaving coaching has also allowed him to spend more time running his business. But he is still involved with Denville Baseball. The organization has made Ranft a trustee for life.
Ranft’s involvement in town baseball and recreation also brought Ranft into the Denville P.R.I.D.E. Council. This organization started in the 1960s “to bring representatives from all of the various groups in town together to discuss what projects they were working on and how they could help each other accomplish their goals,” says Ranft. Some organizations involved include the Rotary, the Kiwanis, the Recreation Committee, the Women’s Club, the Beautification Committee, and teachers.
“It’s not individual,” he says. “The actual members are the various groups. And sometimes a group will send different reps to the meetings. And of course, the meetings are open. Anybody in town who wants to come is invited. There’s no restriction, even if a private citizen wants to come see what it’s about.” Denville’s P.R.I.D.E. Council meets five times a year. The organization runs Rid Litter Day, the National Day of Prayer Observance, community blood drives, an annual award dinner and other events.
Originally, Ranft got involved as a representative of Denville Baseball and the Recreation Committee. Ranft also recollects, “somehow I got elected president. So I was president of the P.R.I.D.E. Council for eight years.” He is still involved today, continuing to represent baseball and the Recreation Committee and is active on on the Open Space Committee. Ranft also worked on the Laudati Playground Committee with local teachers and members of P.R.I.D.E. to build the playground at Muriel Hepner Park.
“That was a project that I really felt was important and enjoyed working on,” says Ranft.
Ranft was president of the Kiwanis Club in 1970 and was also in the Jaycees. He has served on the board of the Denville Historical Society and, for over 30 years now, has continued to serve on the Recreation Committee where he also once served as a chair.
Ranft says, “I was one of the members of the Denville Sports Lighting Committee that lit Gardner Field.” Ranft recollects the night in February several years ago when they turned the lights on for the first time: “members of the committee, we were taking batting practice in a snowstorm. We were so excited to see the field lit because it was a big dream of people of lighting that field for quite a few years.”
Ranft has also been involved with developing Veteran’s Memorial Park.
“I was on the original committee where we purchased the park—what is now the park,” he says. “It was just open space, woods with green acre funds from the state. And then we developed it.”
Ranft has been involved in many projects with Veteran’s Memorial Park and Gardner Field over the years, including building an all-purpose turf field at Veteran’s Memorial Park that opened a couple of years ago. This field has been used for football, soccer, lacrosse and rugby.
About 15–20 years ago, Ranft “was also on the committee that worked to purchase [Cook’s Pond] for the town so that everybody had a place to swim.” Before that, “the only water that went through Denville that wasn’t private was the Rockaway River. Cook’s Pond was a private enterprise, and we purchased it and turned it into a public facility,” says Ranft. The park was named for James F. Dyer, a former mayor of Denville. “It’s a nice facility for the town to own.”
Ranft has also been in the Chamber of Commerce since the 1960s and on the Board of Directors of the Chamber of Commerce for a number of years. About 12 years ago, the Chamber of Commerce asked Ranft to help run the town’s holiday parade. He has been working on that ever since. The parade falls on the Sunday after Thanksgiving every year.
“We bring Santa at the rear of the parade over to Santa Land,” he says. The kids are “probably the best part of the parade. The Girl Scouts, especially, are the biggest contributors to the parade.”
Organizing a parade comes with its challenges.
“You have to raise money to pay the bands and the special acts, and you have to contact everybody who is participating,” says Ranft. “You have to organize volunteers. You need starters. You need section leaders. You need judges.” Ranft used to take on all these responsibilities himself. But these days, Ranft says, “I have a very good committee that makes it a lot easier.”
He was also on Denville’s Centennial Committee and he co-chaired the steering committee of the Centennial parade. “They asked me to do that because I was doing the holiday parade, so they figured I knew something about parades.” Hundreds of volunteers and participants were involved in the parade, which ran for four hours.
Over the years, Ranft has been honored with several awards for his continued volunteer work and active involvement in town. The Chamber of Commerce awarded him Business Person of the year in 1990 and volunteer of the year in 2014. He was awarded the YMCA’s Citizen of the Year in 2000 and the Muriel Hepner Service Award from the P.R.I.D.E. Council in 2010. In 2015, he was presented with the first ever Key to the City for his 50 years of service as a volunteer in Denville. On October 11, he was set to receive a volunteer award from the Morris County Parks Commission.
For those who want to volunteer and get involved in town events, Ranft recommends joining a service club or getting involved through youth sports. There are a lot of school activities that parents can help with. “Denville’s got all kinds of ways for people to volunteer,” says Ranft. “That’s one of the things that makes the town stand out—from the number and talent of all these people who volunteer in town and all these different activities and programs.”
Ranft has been honored many times for his great contributions to the town, but he says that he couldn’t have done it alone.
“Through all of this stuff, my wife’s been very supportive,” he says. “Without her support, it would’ve been very difficult because even coaching at Morris Catholic, it put a lot of burden on her with the store. She’s been excellent.”