The sight of a silver-haired septuagenarian, often crouching uncomfortably as he wields a graffiti-busting paint brush, is common in Coatesville.

Many residents know him only as Coatesville's "Mr. Clean," and that's fine with John Pawlowski, 76, a no-fuss, lifelong city resident who eschews publicity.

But sometimes he can't avoid it.

Last year, City Council honored him by designating every Nov. 23 John Pawlowski Day. The honor stems not only from Pawlowski's tenacious assault against graffiti, but also from his years of service on the Redevelopment Authority, the Weed and Seed committee, and a Coatesville youth summer camp, where he taught archery.

The 2009 proclamation turned out to be a prelude to a grander celebration this year - and one that caught the normally unflappable Pawlowski by surprise.

During last week's City Council meeting, Pawlowski's jaw dropped when his daughter, Janet Yost, suddenly entered the front of the room through the council's door, not the public entrance. Then his son, Michael Pawlowski, a Coatesville firefighter, sneaked up behind him.

John Pawlowski, a father of four and grandfather of eight, covered his head with his hands as he realized that he was the subject of presentation No. 1 on the agenda: "resolution recognizing Coatesville citizen."

"You knew about this, too?" he asked his son, who stayed by his father's side as Yost sang "The Impossible Dream" from The Man of La Mancha.

Yost altered the lyrics slightly, changing "one man, scorned and covered with scars" to "covered with paint." She explained that her mother, Barbara Pawlowski, often joked that her husband's anti-graffiti expeditions resembled Don Quixote's quest.

City Council President Ed Simpson applauded Pawlowski, a 1951 graduate of Scott Senior High School, for his unflinching commitment to beautifying the city, a dedication that has become contagious, generating periodic Coatesville Clean-Up Days that have involved a passel of volunteers. (The next one is Friday.)

"He's a motivator; he leads by example," explained Mike Zuratt, a Coatesville resident and one of the volunteers.

In the 2010 proclamation presented to Pawlowski, Simpson said, "All residents are encouraged to turn on their front and rear porch lights in observance of this special person and this special day."

The idea came from Yost, who said that in addition to reminding residents of actions taken during a 14-month arson scourge from which the city is rebounding, it would also discourage graffiti, generally done under cover of darkness.

She said her father's obsession with improving Coatesville has its roots in the past.

"He knows what a thriving community this can be because he saw the way it used to be," said Yost, referring to the city's former prominence as a steel producer.

The fact that her father has braved crime-ridden neighborhoods to erase gang-related graffiti has often unnerved the family, she said. The anxiety has subsided now that he has attracted assistants.

"He's not out there alone anymore," she said.

Well, maybe not most of the time.

Coatesville Police Officer Rodger H. Ollis Jr. recalled spending "countless hours" with Pawlowski and others ridding Friendship Park of graffiti. Two days later, Ollis was on patrol and saw that their efforts had been undone.

"I was mad, especially because my daughter had helped," he said. "I called John and told him what had happened, and he just said: 'I'll take care of it.' "

Ollis said he went by the park a short time later, and the graffiti was gone.

"That's just the kind of guy he is," Ollis said.

So how did Pawlowski spend his day of recognition?

Quietly, he said, explaining that he has been helping Barbara, his wife of 55 years, recover from open-heart surgery.

Pawlowski downplays his role as a crusader - as well as the bullet that pierced his garage door several years ago, apparently from someone unappreciative of his cleanup mission.

He doesn't deserve to be the focus of attention, he said, citing the Weed and Seed Community Policing subcommittee as the ones doing the bulk of the work.

"It isn't just my effort," he said, pausing when challenged.

"OK, it was for a while, but not anymore."

Contact staff writer Kathleen Brady Shea at 610-696-3815 or kbrady@phillynews.com.