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Jak loves Mexico: Eich moves back to Iowa, but continues to help 'kids'

Paul “Jak” Eich sits with Hoogie on his lap. “She’s the love of my life,” he said about the Chihuahua. (BETH RICKERS/DAILY GLOBE)

LITTLE ROCK, Iowa — Paul “Jak” Eich is comfortable in his little house in Little Rock.

He’s got a cushy chair parked in from of the living window from which he and pooch No. 1, a Chihuahua named Hoogie, can watch the birds outside.

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In the garage and backyard, he has separate pens for the four other dogs — all rescues from Mexico — that have come into his care.

Inside the kitchen, small toys, crosses and birdhouse are set up on the table — fruits of his labor in his basement workshop.

Yes, the abode suits all his physical needs, but Eich would just as soon be 1,680 miles away, in Zitacuaro, Michoacán, Mexico. That’s where his heart still resides.

A native of northwest Iowa and Navy veteran of the Korean War, Eich lived and worked for many years in the Ihlen/Pipestone area, where he was a school custodian and later ran a mining business.

Eich’s travels have taken him across North America, and when Hurricane Mitch devastated Honduras in 1998, he made a trip there to deliver supplies. The trek took him through the heart of Mexico.

“On the road down and coming back, I saw how really poor the people were,” he said. “I had seen a lot of it before, but nothing like I saw coming back through central Mexico.”

Eich resolved to use his resources to help however he could.

“I’m not going to take it with me,” he said. “I’ve already got it carved in my tombstone: ‘God does not allow money in heaven, and it will burn up in hell. Spare what you can to help the poor while you’re alive.’”

At home in the jungle

When it came time to retire, Eich moved to Mexico, choosing Zitacuaro because of its beauty and temperate climate.

“I was driving through the country, and it was so beautiful there,” he recalled.

The jungle climate, Eich noted, had intrigued him ever since he was a young boy and read a story about monkeys picking coconuts and bananas.

“I found that book at a flea market about six months ago,” he said pulling a well-worn primer from his desk. “The copyright in it is 1932 — the year I was born.”

A small city by comparison, Zitacuaro is about 120 miles from Mexico City and located at a major crossroads for the drug trade.

“The drugs come up from Central and South America, and from there some go east to Mexico City, some go west to Guadalajara, and some go north to the United States.

“I drove some of the worst roads in Mexico, roads most people wouldn’t drive without an armed guard, but I’ve never had a problem,” Eich continued. “The only problems I ever had was the food was so good I overate and the girls were so pretty I wanted to stay. It seemed the people went out of their way to be nice to me.”

Even though he never had any direct contacts with drug runners, Eich has hair-raising stories to tell about drug-related activities in that area of Mexico. He has photos on his computer of the Zitacuaro police station, riddled with holes from machine gun fire. In December 2010, he sent friends and relatives an email describing a particularly violent time in the drug wars.

… there were several attacks in many different parts of the state of Michoacán where I live. Several friends telephoned to see if I was OK and told me not to leave the house for a minute, as no one knew who or where the attackers were except drug cartels. Now about five hours later the news reports say the whole state is on fire. The cartels set up roadblocks and shoot people and burn cars and etc. Here in Zitacuaro there were reportedly three different attacks. I unknowingly drove through two of them ...

“In a three-year period, more than 200 people were murdered within five miles of my house,” added Eich somberly, blaming lax drug laws and sentences for the power of the cartels.

Finding family

Married four times — with each of the unions ending in an unfortunate fashion — Eich prefers to joke rather than dwell on those unsuccessful relationships.

“I’d marry again — if she was 95 years old, in very ill health and worth at least $25 million,” he quipped.

But in moving to Zitacuaro, he found a whole new family. “My kids” is how he refers to the children and families he has taken under his wing and helped on the road to a better future.

Using his own funds and donations, Eich built a school to replace a rundown building. When he found out one of his neighboring families was sleeping on the floor of a shack too small for beds, he built them a new home. For a girl with Down syndrome who was having trouble walking, he constructed a walker out of conduit. On Christmas Eve each year, he brought blankets and food to the people living in the street.

For more than 10 years, Eich resided in Mexico, returning only occasionally to the U.S. to attend to his personal business, get medical care and gather supplies and donations.

But a little more than a year ago, Eich made the decision to sell his house in Mexico and return to the States.

“The only reason I came back is because I’m getting pretty old,” said Eich, now 81, recalling a broken hip suffered in 2011. “I thought I’d better get back in case I needed medical care.”

He chose to settle in Little Rock, not because of any ties to that community, but because of its location.

“Worthington, Sheldon, Spirit Lake, Sioux Falls — if you look on a map, this is right in the middle of all of them,” he said. “That, plus the fact that I got the best buy on the house here. I’d never been here before until I bought the house.”

Eich’s “kids” may now live more than 1,500 miles away, but they are never far from his thoughts.

“I still take care of my abandoned kids. There are eight or 10 now,” he said. “The others have grown up.”

Each month, he sends money to one of the girls who is now married and has a daughter. She distributes the funds to the rest of his adopted family. Eich also pays for Internet service and is able to communicate with them at least once a month via Facebook messaging.

“I’ve got the most wonderful kids down in Mexico,” he boasted. “There’s one boy who was on drugs and was stealing, and he overdosed six or seven years ago. I cleaned house with him. Now he goes to church and is doing well. I got him on the right path. … The youngest one, Jonathan, is now 8 years old. ...

“I send what I can down to them. There are more kids I’d like to help, but I had to draw the line.”

If everything goes according to plan, Eich will fly to Mexico for a visit next July.

“Every week I buy a lottery ticket, and I’ve got it in my mind that if I win, I’ll go down and build houses and schools — live half the time there and half the time here,” he said.

But Eich doesn’t count on the lottery win. He makes items in his workshop to sell, with all the proceeds going to help his friends in Mexico. Among the items he has available are small cross necklaces, made from exotic woods from Mexico, toy models of farm implements and birdhouses.

Eich misses much about his life in Mexico — his “family,” his house, the temperate weather — but he’s also thankful for the time spent there and what he has been able to achieve.

“I’m grateful for life and the way I was able to live it the last 25 years,” he said. “All the years, all the money I’ve given away, I’ve not one iota of regret. … I’m thankful for my dogs and my kids. Every night and every morning, I pray to God that he allows me to live long enough so the dogs have all died and the kids are all grown up.”

For more information about the items he sells, contact Eich at (712) 479-2014; email jak_b744@hotmail.com.

Daily Globe Features Editor Beth

Rickers can be reached at 376-7327.

Beth Rickers

Beth Rickers is the veteran in the newspaper staff with 25 years as the Daily Globe's Features Editor. Interests include cooking, traveling and beer tasting and making with her home-brewing husband, Bryan. She writes an Area Voices blog called Lagniappe, which is a Creole term that means "a little something extra." It can be found at http://lagniappe.areavoices.com/.  

(507) 376-7327
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