History of a House
135 West First Avenue
This Guy Really was Something Special
By Jack Coll
Editor’s Note: (This is one in a series of short articles on random houses throughout the borough of Conshohocken, enjoy)
Houses up-and-down the avenues and streets of Conshohocken and West Conshohocken are, well, today, just houses, but back in the early part of last century, say a hundred years ago many of these houses provided needed services to the community. Many of them were corner stores or mid-block stores, the living rooms of some of these houses doubled as pool rooms, barber shops, cigar stores, candy stores and doctors’ offices. On occasion there was nothing special about the house but something special about the resident who may have lived in the house for a period of time. The residents that I continue to point out or highlight contributed something special to the success of our community, and I take great pride in pointing out these residents who otherwise may have been forgotten.
I thought it might be fun and interesting to point out a of few of these houses, that today are occupied by residents or businesses who I’m sure had no idea that their house was at one time something more than just a house.
Kenneth H. Chabaud, he really is something to write about, I never get tired of telling Ken’s story. I wrote about Ken a number of times over the years, I wrote a story about Ken before he died, I wrote about him after he died and I made sure to tell part of his story in the book, “Tales of Conshohocken and Beyond,” and I feel the need to tell his story one more time for the young residents who have moved into this great community in recent years. I’ve written about many of our wonderful residents over the years, Ken Chabaud was one of the great ones.
Ken lived at 135 West First Avenue for as long as I can remember, that particular row of houses along West First Avenue were all built in the late 1860’s and early 1870’s and are some of the oldest houses in the borough. The two-story Stucco Victorian houses were constructed throughout the lower end on both sides of the borough mostly for early labors who worked in the steel mills including Alan Wood Steel which incorporated in 1832.
So perhaps the best way to tell Ken’s story is to repeat a story I wrote five years ago. It goes without saying that Ken was a caring, loving human being who took a great interest in the well being of our community, when you’re done reading this story tell me what you think. If you never met Ken, you’re likely to say, “I wish I could’ve met him, I think I would have liked him.”
So, I wrote this article below in September of 2016 when Ken passed away, and here it is in full the way it was written back then.
You Really Were One of the Good Guys
I Just Can’t Remember How We Met.
By Jack Coll
I was in Ocean City, New Jersey having one of the most remarkable 24 hours of my summer. I was spending quality time with my grandson Rocco and Granddaughter Nora, oh and of course anybody else that was there.
My son gets a text message on his gadget phone and says hey, Ken Chabaud is not doing well, they called in the family. It was a sad message and I got to thinking about the last time I saw him and spoke to him. Kenny would stop by the shop once in a while to say hello or offer some kind words to me or about my family.
I thought about a number of things over the next couple of days, one of the things I thought about was that I owed him a lunch, sometime ago Kenny and I went to lunch together at the Great American Pub on Lower Fayette Street and he picked up the tab, against my wishes but he grabbed the check and took care of it while I sprung for the tip. On the way out and every time I saw him afterwards, I told him I owed him a lunch, it was a debt he didn’t live long enough to collect.
Kenny passed away on September 10, 2016, it’s not like it was sudden, and I think we all understood that he was 90 years old with a few health problems, but it’s still a hard reality.
I think of all the things that I thought about, was that it was rather sad that I couldn’t remember how or when I met Kenny. The best or closest thing I could come-up with was sometime in 1979 or 1980 around the same time I met another town character Sam Januzelli at the Washington Fire House. After meeting Sam, we met a couple of times at the firehouse, sometimes sitting out front on a bench and a couple of times in the radio room, I think Sam felt more at home in the radio room, more in control. We had discussed a series of Post Cards for the firehouse, of the firehouse, trucks and members, Sam was always thinking about the next big thing. He liked the fact that I had a really nice camera then and was willing to work for nothing!
I THINK I met Kenny sitting on one of those benches while I was waiting for Sam one evening. Whether I met him there or not I remember talking to him on the firehouse bench, he was an old guy who spoke softly. I say old-guy because he must have been in his mid-50’s then but keep in mind that I was in my mid 20’s and thanking the good Lord that I would never be as old as Kenny was back then.
(Look-at-me-now, just look-at-me-now)
Our friendship grew slowly over the years, it was just one of those things when we ran into each other, Kenny knew how to start a conversation and keep a conversation going.
Over the years we shared tables at the Washington Fire Company Banquets, social occasions, and Friday night dinners at the firehouse and so-on. He would also stop by the shop to talk about everything from politics, to the state-of-the-borough, and really liked talking about the history of the town, the history of the fire company, and all the little amazing stories he had from his life.
I would like to tell you a few things you might already know, but then maybe a thing or two you didn’t know about Ken Chabaud. He had a bit of a rough childhood but landed in the Navy during World War II on a Navy Destroyer in the Atlantic, Pacific and Mediterranean.
Kenny said he was happy to be in the service at 17 years old cause for him it was a much better life than he had experienced, being in the service provided him with good meals, and a comfortable bed. While Kenny was in boot camp, he met a Conshohocken Man named Charlie Kelly, the future Conshohocken Councilman and the pair hit off a great friendship. Kenny noted that when they had their first leave he really didn’t have anywhere to go and Kelly insisted that he travel to Conshohocken with him, that visit to Conshohocken changed Kenny’s life.
When the pair of men were discharged Kenny and Kelly returned to Conshohocken where the two became roommates, Kenny had no trouble getting a job and enrolled in Conshohocken High school for the next three years where he earned a well-deserved High School diploma.
He earned a living at C & D Batteries for nearly four decades and married his wife Elizabeth in 1952. He will be remembered as a dedicated Washington Fire Company firefighter and founding member of the Washington Fire Company Rescue Squad.
Kenny was the face of the Rescue Squad and a long-time officer in the organization. In 1959 he was honored for saving the life of a six-year-old boy. Kenny arrived on the scene before the rescues truck and found the six-year-old not breathing. Kenny gave the boy artificial respiration and within minutes he had the boy breathing and transported to the hospital where he made a full recovery.
Kenny was awarded the Conshohocken Citizenship Award by the Conshohocken Jaycees and the Kiwanis Club of Conshohocken for his actions. In the early years of the rescue truck Kenny responded to more than 200 rescue calls per year as an active member of the Rescue Squad Team.
The rescue team under Kenny Chabaud along with Lloyd Laskey, Dan Laskey and Enoch Zapien placed first in 1961 in the Annual Convention of the Pennsylvania Association of First Aid and Rescue Squads among many other awards the squad captured over the years Kenny was involved.
What I really wanted to tell you about Kenny is a piece that appeared in the book,
“Tales of Conshohocken and Beyond.”
The entire segment is rather long but worth reading, small towns throughout America appointed a Civil Defense Organization in the early 1960’s, Ken Chabaud was Conshohocken’s head of the Conshohocken organization. Following is an excerpt from the book, rather interesting:
In 1961, John Kennedy was in the White House, and a cold war and turmoil were festering behind closed doors in Washington D. C. Civil Defense organizations were set up in communities throughout America in an effort to protect our children and citizens in case of enemy attack or some other disaster. Although the Cold War started in 1953, following the death of Soviet Leader Joseph Stalin, it wasn’t until 1960 that the war heated up. On May 1, 1960, a CIA reconnaissance plane in USSR territory was shot down over the Soviet Union. At first, the United States denied the plane’s purpose and mission but was forced to admit its role as a convert surveillance aircraft when the Soviet Government revealed that it had captured the pilot Gary Powers alive and was in possession of the mainly intact remains of the aircraft. Gary Powers died in a helicopter crash in 1977, but the Air Force posthumously awarded the Silver Star to his family in July 2012 in a service held at the Pentagon.
In Conshohocken, Kenny Chabaud headed Conshohocken’s Civil Defense Organization and was entrusted to come-up with a study and plan for school evacuation in case of emergency. One of the unique things Kenny did was hire an engineering firm to make a study of Conshohocken’s six schools. Yes, the borough had six schools with more than 2,600 students in attendance.
The study questioned which present facilities in Conshohocken Schools could be used for protection against nuclear radiation as a result of fallout? And what steps could be taken to modify or enlarge the present facilities to upgrade their protection factor and/or increase their capacity? The results showed that all the schools provided some fallout shelter but would not provide adequate blast protection. The overall report for Conshohocken’s six schools was described as “Poor.”
With the report in hand, responsibility for protecting our more than 2,600 school children from any kind of attack fell squarely on Kenny Chabaud’s shoulders. Because of the “Poor” rating, it became the duty of the Civil Defense Organization to immediately take steps to provide for the children’s protection.
Enter “Operation Run”
Director Chabaud announced a mock exercise titled “Operation Run,” the exercise was scheduled for December 12, 1961. Students in the borough’s six schools who lived within walking distance (which was everyone) would be ordered to run to their homes to take shelter. More than 120 adults, including police, C. D. Wardens, auxiliary police, fire police and school crossing guards with a number of residents would supervise the exercise to protect the students in their run home.
At 2 P. M. on December 12, 1961, every siren in the borough sounded an alert warning. Four loud continuous blasts of the sirens were aired at intervals of three to five minutes. The children were instructed to leave the school buildings in accordance with a plan similar to a fire drill. The exception was, when the students were clear of the buildings, they were instructed to run to their homes as fast as possible to take shelter. NOTE: When I say all the sirens, we had the two fire companies and dozens of factories along the river and throughout the borough with loud sirens to notify employees of starting times, lunch break and quitting time, when the sirens blew, they could be heard throughout the borough.
According to Director Chabaud and Deputy Director Fred Flocco, “Operation Run” went off without a hitch. Parents were asked to fill out forms logging the time it took for their children to get home from school and state whether they had enough food in case of disaster and proper first aid for their family in case of injury. It was estimated that all children reached their homes within ten to twelve minutes.
Thanks to cooler heads in Washington, “Operation Run” remained a mock exercise throughout the country. But if our country had come under attack during those fragile days of the early 1960’s, it’s refreshing to know that Conshohocken had a plan, thanks to Ken Chabaud and the local Civil Defense officials in Conshohocken.
In a discussion with Ken Chabaud in 2012, he recalled that the “Operation Run” plan was a successful one but was scrapped shortly after acceptance. “We ran Operation Run as though the missiles, if fired would be coming from Russia, giving our children time to get home,” Chabaud noted. “However, a year later, Fidel Castro was looking to defend Cuba from a United States attack.” Ken was referring to the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961. Castro felt a second attack was inevitable, thus allowing Khrushchev’s plan to place missiles on the island. With his hands out, Chabaud explained that a missile fired from Cuba wouldn’t allow the children time to get home. “So, we called off Operation Run and planned for the kids to stay at school in case of a nuclear attack.”
The Cuban Missile Crisis was the closest the world ever came to nuclear war. Things heated up in the summer of 1962, and the United States crisis lasted for thirteen days in October 1962. In the end, John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev stood eye to eye, and perhaps because of their leadership, a nuclear war was averted.
Shortly after the stand-down, Soviet General and Army Chief of Operations Anatoly Gribkov was quoted as saying,
“Nuclear catastrophe was hanging by a thread,
And we weren’t counting days or hours, but minutes.”
This ends the book excerpt. I’m just wondering how many of Kenny’s friends from over the years even knew about that, Kenny spent months planning how to keep our parents and children safe from war, communicating with members of the Civil Defense Committee in Washington D. C., and ask the experts, ask them just how close we were from pushing the button at the White House, we weren’t that far from it.
My quote about Kenny Chabaud is this, “I’d be surprised if I could ever meet in my lifetime a more positive person, a kinder or gentler human being, soft spoken, not a big smile but a warm smile, a smile that welcomes you, relaxes you, really makes you want to sit down and have a conversation with him.”
Kenny and I had a lot in common in our lives, I wish I could have turned out a little bit more like my quote above. His passing is one of those times when I say to myself, “Damn, I wish I could have had just one more firehouse chat with him, I’d ask him to tell me his life story all over again just so I could tell him “Damn Kenny, you’re an amazing person.”
I’d like to go on and tell you about his days at the firehouse, how he loved marching in parades, especially the Atlantic City era from 1954-1967, yea, Kenny told me some really good stories about those days, stories that would have the rest of his firefighting comrades putting their fingers over their lips in their graves.
Kenny you really were one of the good guys, I just wish I really could remember when and how we met.
Rest in peace my friend, you had a great run!
So, that’s the story I have for 135 West First Avenue, it’s a Conshohocken small row house, and yet, I’ve found some of the most amazing stories behind the front door of our small row-houses. A note to our more recent residents, you are now living in an amazing town, of course our long-time residents already knew that.
We have the American Dream right here in Conshohocken, What is the American-Dream you might ask? The American-Dream starts with the amazing people who came before us and continues to this day. The American-Dream is those same amazing people who have worked hard for a living and continue to work hard. The American Dream is all about finding peace within yourself and making the most of your life, like Ken Chabaud did, and did it with a smile on his face and a warmness in his heart.
I still miss him, love and peace Ken.
Photographs above include:
Kenny’s house at 135 West First Avenue
Kenny at a Washington Fire Company Banquet standing between Dave Zinni and Andrew Carlin, Kenny was presented with a company jacket for his 45 years of service.
A 1960’s photo of officers of the Washington Rescue Squad included front row from left to right Alex Pecharo, President; Heller, Secretary; Ken Chabaud, Vice President. Standing in back included Hylinski, Volpe and Hilliard.
Andrew Carlin presents Kenny with a certificate of appreciation for Kenny’s years of service at the Washington Fire Company banquet.
Kenny poses for a group photo on Thanksgiving Day in 2011 with from left Anthony D’Angelo, Kimberly Costello, Daniel Ingram, Andrew Carlin, Ken Chabuad, Frank Carlin and Joseph Wertz.
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