My Uncle Robbie passed away this week. He was actually my great-uncle, my grandfather’s brother, and even though that sounds really distant, I loved him dearly. But I wasn’t the only one. My Uncle Robbie was really special to a lot of people.
Some knew him as Bob, some knew him as Robert or Robbie, but a lot of people actually knew him simply as “Chief.”
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
I can still remember the first time I really met him. I say “really met,” because I’m sure growing up I saw him and even interacted with him at a Christmas party or two, [his sister, my great-aunt used to throw some blow out Christmas parties…] but I don’t remember meeting him back then.
However, this time, it was different. We were at the luncheon immediately following my Pop-pop’s [Uncle Robbie’s brother] funeral. I can still remember sitting across from him at my grandparent’s kitchen table. What I remember most clearly was just staring at him. I was mesmerized. I literally couldn’t tear my eyes away from his face. The reason being that he looked so much like my Pop-pop. And in that moment, on that day, his face gave me an immense amount of comfort. I felt like when I looked at him, even for just a fleeting moment, I got one more glimpse of my beloved Pop-pop.
At that time, I didn’t know him as Chief, I didn’t even know that was his nickname. I just knew him as Uncle Robbie, my grandfather’s brother. But from that day on I loved him so much. Not just for the comfort his face gave me, but because he shared the best stories, and he had a way of making everyone smile and laugh around him. He was just a happy guy.
I later learned he was quite the celebrity in Philadelphia. He and my Pop-pop’s family started a concession business in 1943 with 7 concession stands all around Fairmount Park. And although all of those concession stands had since closed down, most having been torn down and replaced by new buildings, Robbie realized he missed the family business. So in 1992 he once again began selling concessions on Kelly Drive, this time from his red van. He and his van could be found parked across from Boathouse Row 7 days a week, from March-November, rain or shine. And every single person who crossed his path grew to love him. So much so that when the company he was “renting” the space to park his van and sell concessions from told him he couldn’t do so anymore, the rowing community petitioned the city of Philadelphia to allow him to come back to Kelly Drive. And to that community of rowers, runners and bikers, my Uncle Robbie was known as “Chief.”
If you asked him why he was called Chief, he would say it actually started because he couldn’t remember the names of everyone who would stop by his stand, so he would just call all of them Chief. So much so that the athletes up and down Boathouse Row decided to start calling him Chief in return.
And let me tell you, Chief was a beloved man down there.
Years ago, I found out that the Conestoga High School Rowing Team was going to name one of their new row boats after Robbie. They were going to have a ceremony, as a way of christening the boat and honoring their Chief. So I told my Mom-Mom [Uncle Robbie’s sister-in-law] that I wanted to go to the ceremony with her. I’d never been to visit Uncle Robbie at the park, and I had always wanted to, so this was a great excuse to experience Uncle Robbie’s life at the park.
So we drove to Boathouse Row and it was just the best day.
Those kids seriously LOVED him. They all thought he was the greatest guy. I remember being asked who I was, and when I said I was his niece [really, his great-niece] they all said I was so lucky to be related to him and how much they loved him.
At the ceremony, a Conestoga rower shared why they named the boat after Chief, saying that he was such a huge part of their rowing experience, and because of that, they wanted to honor him and his commitment to the park. She said he always made everyone who stopped at his stand feel special and would talk to anyone and everyone who biked, jogged, ran or walked past. He even had a water dish out there for dogs [or geese] who walked past his stand.
And even though Chief wasn’t able to be at the park for years now due to getting older and his struggle with Alzheimers, a piece of him will always be there. Not only did the rowers name a boat after him, they also dedicated a bench to him right across the street from where he would park his van every day.
I’m sure many of them have missed him for years, and will be even sadder to know that he has passed away. When interviewed for an article in “Foar Rowers,” Ken Carpenter, a jogger who frequented Kelly Drive and Chief’s stand said, “to come out and not see Chief is like not having the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia.”
I haven’t seen my Uncle Robbie in years, something that makes me really sad, but every once in a while, I’d get pictures and updates from my mom on how he was doing. And since most of the pictures were either of him sticking his tongue out, petting his dog, or posing with a giant stuffed tiger, I was so happy to know although he was suffering from Alzheimer’s, he never lost his humor or zest for life.
And even though I haven’t seen him in a long time, I’m really going to miss him. I’m going to miss his humor, his stories, and his joy. But I’m especially going to miss his face. The face that gave me a glimpse of my beloved Pop-pop. The face that brought me incredible comfort on one of the hardest days of my life. The face that brought so many people such joy and laugher. Greeting everyone with a smile, a joke and of course a Philly soft pretzel.
Goodbye Chief, you are sorely missed, but dearly remembered.