The Chief of Boathouse Row

World War II veteran and rowing enthusiast is a Boathouse Row fixture

· July 18, 2012, 8:50 pm

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Mike Wisniewski | DP

Known to the rowers and runners he sells drinks and snacks to only as “Chief,” the Boathouse Row fixture has been a vendor on the Schuylkill River for 68 years and counting.


“Men, the bar’s open!” he yells to three high school boys walking past.

“Hey Chief, how you doin’?” one hollers back. “Can I get a water bottle, please.”

“One water bottle, Joe!” Chief motions to the cooler as he instructs his assistant to comply with the high schooler’s request.

“How ya doin’?” he turns and asks his customer. “You’re racing this Sunday, right? Well, good luck!”

“Thank you,” the buyer replies, handing Joe two dollars for the water. He knows the cost — Chief’s prices for the year have been established since March 1: a dollar and a quarter for everything. Once he receives his three quarters in change, the high school rower turns around and shuffles off to practice with the rest of his teammates.

After the rush of customers abates, Chief turns to me and smiles.

“I got a lot of friends down here, ya know,” he says, his grin shadowed in the afternoon sun by his navy blue World War II Veteran hat, which he wears proudly every day. He offers me a snack, but I politely decline.

Every few minutes, someone walking by greets Chief with a quick hello, and many come over to spend a few minutes chatting with the old man. He’s a “people person,” according to loyal customer and friend Fritz Spang, who stops by daily at the end of his routine two-and-a-half-mile walk.

“He’s down here, he loves it. He could do whatever he wants, [he’s] done well for himself,” Sprang says. “He doesn’t need to be down here, but he wants to be down here. I think that’s the difference.”

He’s a “mainstay” to the Kelly Drive rowing culture, Penn lightweight crew coach Nick Baker says.

“When I was here [in Philadelphia] as an athlete from 2001-03, I saw him … and then when I came back here as a coach in ’09, he was still right in the same spot doing the same thing,” Baker says. “He’s one of those mainstays on Boathouse Row, just like you have the Rocky statue up by the Art Museum.”

Chief, in fact, was on the river long before Rocky debuted in 1976. Surviving 68 years vending to countless passersby on Philadelphia’s most famous block, Robert Rasmussen, 86, has to be doing something right.

  • * *

His table sits on the cobblestone divider that separates the paved walkway on Kelly Drive from the bustling four lanes of car traffic. On it, he displays all his items up for sale: Skittles, Snickers and other candies; Nutri-Grain bars, for those preferring a healthier snack; bananas; and of course, soft pretzels, a Philadelphia staple. He sells about 400 of those in a week, he informs me.

“But we gotta keep ’em wrapped,” he explains, “so they stay fresh.”

You’ll usually see Chief sitting in his dark gray minivan, which he drives to work each day from his Center City home, parked in the street behind the table. Taped to the side of the vehicle are three signs, the largest of which reads, “I have been in this park 68 years,” with the numeral eight in 68 stuck over last year’s still-visible numeral seven. In the car, he keeps his cooler full of water ice, water and sodas. Coke or Pepsi?

“We have both,” he says. Chief plays no favorites.

He loves all the runners and rowers — high school or college, city or suburban — who trek down to Philadelphia’s rowing hub each day. He considers them all dear friends. He has so many friends that he can’t remember all their names, so he started calling everybody “chief.” And they returned the gesture.

But if he had to pick a favorite school, it would likely be Conestoga High School, though he won’t admit it. Last summer, the club, which rows out of Bachelors Barge Club at No. 6 Boathouse Row, dedicated a shell in his honor, and named it, of course, Chief.

“He was really touched and he was really excited and happy,” says Paul Coomes, who has been head coach of the Berwyn, Pa., program since 1998. “Rowers come up with the names for the shell to represent what we think Conestoga Crew is about, and they vote on those. Chief came up last year, because obviously of his impact on the kids. He’s always down here and he’s great to the kids.”

Even after all the decades he has spent along the banks of the Schuylkill River, it was the first time a crew bestowed the ultimate honor upon him. But it was his second recent accolade, as only a couple of years ago, a group of boathouse members gathered together $1,000 to have Fairmount Park revere him with a plaque on the bench that sits across the path from him: “Dedicated to Bob Rasmussen — Chief — a friend of rowers for more than 65 years.”

On the day of the boat christening ceremony, surrounded by friends and family, he was visibly emotional.

“They wanted me to say a speech, but I got too tied up,” Chief says. “I was ready to cry.”

“I lived on the river and I’ll die on the river. And I’d give another speech if I wasn’t crying so hard,” were the only words he could muster that day, according to former Conestoga rower Augusta Harris, who initially nominated him for the tribute.

Harris, a four-year oarswoman for the Pioneers and now a freshman at Columbia University, wanted to propose someone who had been present and made a significant impact in the lives of her and her teammates during their high school careers.

“I think Chief is definitely not only that person, but a model for all of us,” she says. “He’s just a model for anybody who is a vendor, of not just doing it for profit, but doing it because he loves to be there … His enthusiasm, and optimism, and not just quitting when you leave the water, but seeing an elderly person just keeping a presence on the river and on the Row [is inspiring].”

Since moving on to the Manhattan college, Harris has suspended her rowing career and no longer spends her afternoons — spring, summer, or fall — down Kelly Drive like she used to. She’s glad, however, to hear that Chief has no retirement plans in the near future.

“We’re really happy that Chief is sticking around. We really love him,” she says, adding after a pause, “I really love him. I really miss him. He’s definitely a great guy.”

  • * *

Robert Rasmussen was born in Philadelphia in November 1926 — the same month NBC first launched as a radio station — to Danish immigrant parents trying to find their way through the Great Depression. His father, who fought in World War I, and his mother moved to the United States after the war.

When Bob was a kid, both parents worked: his father as a waiter in a restaurant, and his mother ran the boarding house and cooked for its eight patrons. But he and his older sister, Ruth, didn’t get off easy.

“We used to go door to door selling homemade fudge,” he remembers.

The family first got into the vendor business in Fairmount Park when he was still young. At that time, the park featured over a dozen stands, which were owned by the City of Philadelphia. To operate one, you had to put in an offer. And the Rasmussens did.

“That first year, we bid for two, but we only got one. The second year, we bid for seven or eight — we got ’em all.”

At age 16, still a student at West Philadelphia High School, Bob began working the concessions with his family. And he’s yet to call it quits.

In the seven decades since, he has spent only two years not working his stand in the park. That was during World War II, when he served in the Marines Corps. But he never saw battle.

“I was a cook in the service,” he says. “And I stayed in the States. I was lucky.”

When the war was over, Bob packed up his bags and returned home from San Francisco. Picking up right where he left off, he once again began peddling hot dogs each year, from March 1 to December 1, like clockwork.

There was that one time, back in 1998, when the park’s new concessionaire, Fairmount Management, actually attempted to oust him. It only took about a week and a half before the uproar among the Kelly Drive faithful reached a point where the park had to take him back.

“They didn’t like that I was here, because my price was cheaper than theirs,” Chief says. “They tried to kick me out, and they made a big stink about it, all the rowers.”

After coverage from the Philadelphia Daily News and a few hundred petition signatures, the “Bring Chief Back” campaign became too much to ignore, and the big business caved. The little guy got his spot back.

Not surprisingly, Fairmount Management couldn’t compete with Chief, and they left. There’s a new company operating now out of Lloyd Hall at No. 1 Boathouse Row. And they seemed to have learned a lesson from their predecessors.

“They’ve very nice people,” Chief says. “They’re very nice to me.”

  • * *

Ten years ago, you might have found Joseph Harris roaming the streets of Center City, probably around 16th and Locust, doing a crazy dance workout routine which earned him the nickname, “Crack.”

“Well, I was on drugs at the time,” Joe admits. “But I that’s how I got the name, from my dancing.”

Homeless and living on the streets, Joe was begging for money. He had had a job as a roofer, but an accident blinded him in his left eye and he only received a small pension for it.

One day, he asked the man who owns two properties at 16th and Latimer if he could have a job. It was his lucky day. The man paid him to walk his dog, take the trash out and shovel snow. He even allowed him to sleep in his backyard.

Joe’s been working for Chief ever since.

Nowadays he’s off the streets and living with his sister in West Philadelphia, paying rent to her with the paycheck he earns as Chief’s assistant. He’s kicked the drug habit, although he does allow himself to drink a few cold ones now and then. And he’s down on Boathouse Row with Chief every day.

“Rain or shine, we’re down here. … Downpour? We just sit in the car,” Joe says. “He’s 24/7. … No matter how cold, he still comes up. I still got shivers from last year and the year before that.”

Joe, a tall black man in his fifties with a graying beard, is popular with the customers as well and has become a staple in the last several years. His role in Chief’s business has increased tremendously since Chief fell in his home a few months ago while trying to feed his cats.

“Ended up in the hospital for like a month,” Joe says, shaking his head. “But he needed the rest anyway.”

Since having his back surgery, Chief can’t move around like he used to. To walk, he has to shuffle his legs, so he moves around very slowly. It also causes him pain to bend over and pick up things. As a result, Joe has to do all the heavy lifting, although sometimes Chief can be stubborn.

“We was out here one day, and he was picking up the heavy water cooler [which provides free water to thirsty dogs]. He was trying to be strong, you know? Pick up heavy stuff. I said, ‘Let me do it.’ He says, ‘Nah I got it.’ But he fell down. I said, ‘See, I told you.’”

Chief also has a quick temper on occasion, and according to Joe, he’s been fired about 30 times.

“But the next day he calls and says, ‘You going to work or what?’ I say, ‘You just fired me!’”

Despite all the wild exchanges that occur between the two, they work well together. Joe probably knows Chief’s life story as well as anyone alive now, especially since Ruth passed away in 1998. And Chief appreciates his sidekick.

“He’s an honest person. He likes his drink, and he smokes … but he’s a good guy. I give him a little extra money every now and then.”

  • * *

Chief is out at his usual spot each morning setting up at 10 a.m., and everything is ready to go by quarter to 11. Joe sets up the table and the faded, pastel-colored umbrella that protects the food from the sun above. Chief puts out the candy bars and apples, and Joe carries the large folding sign that signals Chief is open for business a few houses down.

“He’s an institution,” says Penn women’s crew coach Mike Lane, who has been with the Quakers for nearly a decade. “I wouldn’t expect to show up here and not see him. … If he’s not here on a random day, something’s wrong.”

Chief never takes a day off — he’s a workaholic. If there’s nothing but sunny days from the beginning of March to the end of November, he’ll work 275 days straight, nine hours a day. He hasn’t taken a vacation in six years.

“Every day you come out here, he’ll be here. I say, ‘You gonna take a day off?’ He says, ‘Nah the kids need me,’” Joe tells me. “I tried to get him to go to Atlantic City to take a day off, but he won’t. He says he wants to die down here.”

Chief has no future vacations planned, nor any thoughts of retirement. He had enough fun on his cruise to Key West to last him for awhile. And he doesn’t do it for the money — he’s got plenty.

“He’s rich and famous,” Joe says. “I’d rather be rich.”

Never married, his modest concession stand is his life, and it’s all he needs.

“People ask me all the time when I’m going to retire. I say I’m not. I don’t want to go home and sit in a rocking chair. I love it down here. I’ll probably die down here.”

With the 5 p.m. post-practice rush gone, the day is winding down. Once again, Chief offers me a snack. He’s been insisting I have something all day, and I finally oblige: a water ice, but in a couple minutes.

“Joe! He’ll get it anyway,” he says. Though he mumbles or stutters at times and can be difficult to understand, he rattles off the flavors — flavors he’s been selling for years — without hesitation: “We got lemon, cherry, blue raspberry and watermelon.”

“Definitely lemon.”

“Joe, here. Get me a lemon for my friend here.”

I offer to pay, but he won’t have it. After all, this is his favorite part of the job — brightening another’s day with small gifts, in this case, providing a former rower with a tangy taste he hasn’t enjoyed in almost three years.

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