MOUNT DESERT — Ronald J Chase, Sr., a World War II veteran and former Town of Mount Desert dispatcher, died July 28, 2010. He was an ambulance driver and firefighter, house painter, businessman and in general one of the people who made the community of Northeast Harbor the charming place it is today.
A descendant of the Bartletts who settled on Bartlett’s Island in the 18th-century, he was born June 2, 1920, to Joseph and Alberta (Ober) Chase. He grew up in Northeast Harbor, and while he didn’t grow up that tall, stopping at around 5 feet, 6 or 7 inches, he never acted like or acknowledged being short. In fact, in high school, Earl Hodgkins, his old basketball teammate at Gillman High School in Northeast Harbor, who was tall, remembers that it was always his job to get the ball to Ronny to shoot, instead of the other way around.
His build came in handy when Mr. Chase enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps at the outset of World War II. He was sent to Africa where he crewed on a B-17 (Flying Fortress) bomber flying missions over Italy and Romania, often curled up in a fetal position in the tiny space allotted for the ball turret gunner. The space was so tight the gunner could not wear a parachute.
Fortunately he never did need one, and Mr. Chase returned safely to Northeast Harbor, going to work in one of the several businesses owned by his mother’s family. He also did some house painting and clamming on the side.
Around that time he began to notice one of the village girls, Phyllis Mae Gray. The couple married in 1951, beginning a 58-year union marked by deep mutual love and respect, caring and good humor that lasted until her death last year.
As the couple started their family, they also started a new business – Ronnie’s Lunch – taking over the Ober family’s former meat market, now Redfield’s, on Main Street. Ronnie served up hot dogs, burgers, fries, ice cream sodas and the like. Ronnie’s Lunch soon became the primary hangout for the neighborhood kids.
“At lunch time at school we’d all cut across the field to Uncle Ronnie’s instead of eating the school lunch,” recalls his nephew Scamp Gray. “We’d fill the place eating our burgers and drinking sodas and playing the jukebox and then we’d all disappear.”
He says Ronnie’s also had one of the only working TVs in town, and his uncle kept the shop open some evenings so the kids (and some of their parents) could watch the Ed Sullivan Show and other favorites.
When Ronnie and Phyllis bought their home on Summit Road in 1960, the neighbors helped dig out a foundation for them beneath the house.
In this friendly house the Chases raised their two children and kept the doors open for the other neighborhood youngsters.
His daughter, Julie Donohue of Los Gatos, Calif., said Mr. Chase doted on his family and was never too busy, despite his many jobs and volunteer work, to be interested and involved in what they were up to.
“And can you believe it, if he got out of work by 4:30 he’d go dig up a bushel of clams to bring home for dinner,” she said.
“He was so proud of us and taught us by example rather than discipline,” she added. “I am 60 now, but I don’t recall a single time in my life when my father raised his voice to me or my brother. He just said what needed to be said in his normal voice and we just knew we needed to listen.”
That unflappable nature served Mr. Chase well when he worked for the town as a dispatcher for more than three decades. He also served as a volunteer for the fire department and ambulance service for more than 35 years.
Norris Reddish, who worked with Mr. Chase, said you never could tell if a caller was reporting a stubbed toe or a heart attack, as Ronnie’s voice never changed or wavered when he dispatched.
Bob Pyle recalls the time when the Des Isles building burned on Main Street in 1965, and because he was small and light Mr. Chase went up to ventilate the roof.
“You could see the flames following his axe right up through the roof,” said Mr. Pyle, “and hear Phyllis hollering, ‘Ronnie get down from there you damn fool!’ Later when someone asked him why on earth he risked his life to do that he replied, “to make a hole.”
In an earlier fire in 1964, which burned the Pastime Theater, Scamp Gray remembers that his uncle had his workers open up the luncheonette to make sandwiches and coffee for the firefighters, all at his own expense.
“Ronald and Phyllis Chase made such a contribution to the well-being of this community that they should never be forgotten,” Mr. Pyle said.
Just as Mr. Chase failed to notice his short stature as an adolescent, he failed to notice old age when it started creeping up on him. He continued working well into his 70s and was still painting houses in his 80s. The last time he fell off a roof was at age 84. He was more careful after that.
In their senior years he and his wife enjoyed trips up to Bangor to see their grandchildren play in various sports tournaments; going to Ellsworth to have lunch at Helen’s or Jasper’s; or just driving down to the harbor to watch the boats and shoot the breeze with whomever they found there.
But his daughter Julie says her dad never did fully recover from losing Phyllis, a year ago last March, or from the stroke he suffered in June. Still, she said, when her brother Ron, Jr., took their dad out to a gathering for elderly people at a church in Bangor, she said he assumed he was going along to help the “old folks” not be one of them.
The many friends and family members who gathered in June at the Neighborhood House to help celebrate his 90th birthday, made it abundantly clear that Ron Chase was an integral part of the town of Mount Desert’s soul, and a shining example of its native wit and wisdom.
At that event, Mr. Pyle recalled the time when he asked Mr. Chase how he would describe the long-term relationship between generations of native islanders and summer people. “Ron paused for a moment and replied, softly ‘Eternal. We’re buried side by each.’”
Mr. Chase proved his point last Saturday when he was laid to rest at Forest Hill Cemetery alongside his wife Phyllis and in the eternal company of such summer folk as TV personality Garry Moore, whose TV variety show the neighborhood folks used to watch at Ronnie’s Lunch every Tuesday night.
Mr. Chase was also a Master Mason of Northeast Harbor Masonic Lodge 208 for more than 50 years.
In addition to his daughter and son-in-law Julie and Michael, he is survived by his son and daughter-in-law, Ronald J. Chase, Jr. and his wife Deborah of Bangor; his sister Ruth Mitchell and her husband Robert; grandchildren Christian Fitzharris, Meghan Chase, Stephanie Chase, Michael J. Donohue V, and Stephen Donohue. Contributions in Ronald’s memory may be made to The Northeast Harbor Ambulance Service, P.O. Box 122, Northeast Harbor ME. Condolences may be expressed at www.jordanfernald.com