SOUTHEAST HISTORY: The life of Sellwood's Chester Keller
Let me tell you about Chet Keller.In his hundred years in Sellwood, he rode the historic Sellwood Ferry to downtown Portland, he witnessed the opening of the original Sellwood Bridge that replaced the ferry in 1925, and he chatted with Sellwood's celebrated surgeon, Dr. John J. Sellwood. Chester Keller was his name, and he was witness to all the historical events, and all the changes in the city, that took place in his long lifetime.
And, for the past ten years, I've wanted to offer a story in THE BEE about the man who saw more changes in the neighborhood than most of us ever will. But, the ever-humble Chet Keller felt uncomfortable in the spotlight, and he preferred not to have anything published about him.
Last October 2017, Chester Keller – or Chet, as he preferred to be called – peacefully passed away, and many of us who have had the unique opportunity to know him now hope to pay tribute to him.
On November 27, 2017, some twenty five of Chet's friends and acquaintances gathered at the home of Genie Espenel, to which I was graciously invited. Together, with the help of everyone present, I was able to piece together the story of a very special person who touched us all with his whimsical humor and welcoming smiles and personality.
The Life and Times of Chet Keller
Charles and Jessie Keller moved to Sellwood around 1905. They had two children, Olive and Chester. Charles first worked as a driver for the Pioneer Soda Company, delivering beverages to stores and confectionaries using a horse and wagon. Girls and boys who lived in Sellwood loved to stop by and visit Chet and Olive because there knew there would be plenty of pop and chewing gum to be handed out by their parents.
Once the Keller family settled into a new home at the corner of S.E. 13th and Sherrett, Charles started work as a clerk behind the counter at the Red and White Store. This grocery store, owned by Roy Clifford, and was just four blocks south of the Keller residence, along the busy commercial district of Sellwood. Later Charles partnered with his good friend Henry Wahlfall to open a real estate company located next to Ditto Plumbing on S.E. 17th Avenue near Tacoma Street.
As did most other boys and girls who grew in the neighborhood, Chet found adventure around every corner. In 1925, thousands of people and autos gathered for the opening of the original Sellwood Bridge across the Willamette River. Chet was present with his Sellwood third grade class; the students sang "America the Beautiful", and the Benson High School Band played patriotic songs, followed by political speeches from the Mayor and other city officials.
On September 14, 1927, Charles Lindbergh in his famous plane, "Spirit of St. Louis", flew in to Portland for the inauguration of the city's first major airport, and Chet made sure he was there. He convinced his mother to take him out to Swan Island (where the airport was then), and together they boarded the Sellwood street car and traveled north to experience one of Portland's most dramatic aviation events.
As a ten-year-old, Chet was expected to run down to the local market and pick up whatever was needed for the evening meal. His favorite errand was buying cigars for his dad at a small cigarette stand that stood across from the Beaver Pharmacy. The Pharmacy was run by Peter and Katherine Livingston, and was a popular place for ice cream sodas and drinks. If there was any extra change left over after buying his dad's cigars, Chet knew he would be able to buy something sweet at the soda fountain. Other times Chet spent the afternoon reading about his favorite heroes in the comic section of Livingston's Soda Shop.
"Every Saturday, my mother and I went to the movie show," reminisced Chet for THE BEE, during an interview in 2003. The Sellwood Theater, at the corner of Tacoma and 13th – it's now the Columbia Sportswear Store – showed a different film each weekend for just 15 cents. "We would buy a bag of candy at the Sellwood Sweet Shop, and if you found a piece of candy wrapped in a pink wrapper you got to choose another piece free."
Chet started caddying at the Waverley Golf Club just south of Sellwood to earn extra money for those ice cream sodas and movie shows. A majority of boys who hired on as caddies at the Waverley Club came from Sellwood Primary School, and some of them became semi-professional golfers when they grew up.
Spectators and golfers could ride the Sellwood streetcar that disembarked at Golf Junction – where the original clubhouse was located, near 11th Avenue. You could either transfer to the interurban that would continue south to the small community of Milwaukie, and from there go to Clackamas and Oregon City. The interurban made an additional stop at the 6th green of the Waverley Golf Club, where the caddy shack was located. Boys under the age of sixteen would wait patiently in the shack playing cards or dice, or practicing their putting skills, until they were called upon to shag balls or to caddy for a golfer.
In 1927 you had to pay 60 cents to get a badge to be eligible to caddy at the Waverley golf course for the year. There would be 12 or 13 caddies on call at the shack, and you were refunded the badge money at the end of the year. It cost golfers 80 cents to play nine holes, and $1.20 for 18 holes.
In 1930 Chet caddied at a tournament in Astoria. To get there, he and a friend rode the trolley north to the end of the Hawthorne Bridge, where a small steamship called "The Oregon" waited for boarding passengers. For a fare of $3.00 each they clambered onto the top deck where they were given mattresses to lie on while they enjoyed the five-hour trip to Astoria. The ship stopped at every town along the way, and the two boys watched the loading and unloading of cargo and supplies that were traded along the route.
If he wasn't earning money on the golf greens, Chet delivered advertisement bills door to door to notify residents of the upcoming feature film at the Westmoreland Theater. There was also money to be made from merchants at the Sellwood Market or Brill's Dry Goods Store, who hired boys like Chet to hand out small ads on street corners.
Chet's parents usually shopped at Clifford's Cash Grocery. Clifford kept a wooden box behind the counter with the receipts he'd collected from the customers who bought groceries on account. Some of the kids in the area would buy candy from behind the counter and charge it to their parents' account without their knowledge. "I guess Clifford's didn't live up to its reputation as a cash and carry business, since Mr. Clifford accepted credit most of the time," remarked Chet, smiling.
Chet attend many events at Sellwood Park, at 7th and S.E. Miller Street; Sellwood Pharmacy sponsored a semi-pro baseball team that played there, and was at times the talk of the town. One of Chet's hobbies was keeping tabs on outstanding athletes that grew up in the area and went on to become professional sports athletes. One particular player he remembered was the hard throwing Oscar "Red" Miller, an ace pitcher for Sellwood's school champion baseball team, and after he graduated he went on to be a professional pitcher for many years.
Sellwood Park hosted many notable events, and Chet was in attendance when soccer games were being played on the field – in those days, played mostly by Scandinavian or German players. Since they didn't speak English very clearly, Chet had a hard time knowing who the players were, and what team they represented, but he enjoyed the action just the same.
Dr. Sellwood lived and worked in the neighborhood, and it wasn't unusual to hear the sound of the organ he played during church services on Sunday mornings. Dr. Sellwood bought the organ for the church, which now is in Astoria – as described by an article written by BEE historian Eileen Fitzsimons in the February, 2013, issue.
"Dr. Sellwood was very erect in his posture, and always wore a standard white surgeon's coat," recalled Chet during another interview. "He was always proud to talk about his exploits when he was treating the wounded soldiers injured during the First World War."
Dr. Sellwood and Dr. Nickelsen worked out of an office at 13th and Harney, and the parking lot on the north side was where Dr. Nickelsen's pet cheetah "Chewie" was kept. A chain link fence kept the big cat from roaming the neighborhood, but children who walked home when school was over could pass by and easily be tempted to pet the wild animal. (Cheetahs are among the most gentle of the big cats, so none of them got bitten.)
Dr. Nickelsen was Chief Surgeon in the 1950's at what was then called the Portland General Hospital (formerly the Sellwood Hospital), situated in the block just west of Sellwood Middle School. Local lore hints that Nickelsen didn't favor medicine or prescription drugs, and Chet fondly remarked that, "Most of us in the neighborhood joked that if you complained to Dr. Nickelsen that you had a sore throat, he would want to operate on you."
After graduating from Commerce High School (today, Cleveland High), Chet enrolled at the University of Oregon in Eugene. He arrived to witness the Tall Firs basketball team win the college basketball championship in 1938-39. He majored in business, and continued his love of golf by joining the University squad; he eventually lettered in golf.
Chet enjoyed his time on the university campus immensely, but a call from his mother, Jessie, announcing in 1939 that his father had died unexpectedly put a damper on his studies. When he could, he visited his mother on weekends, and spent the summer living in the Sellwood house he grew up in.
On December 7th, 1941, Japanese war planes attacked Pearl Harbor in the Hawaiian islands, and thousands of men and teenagers in Oregon signed up to fight in the war against Japan and Germany.
Instead of being drafted, Chet enlisted in the newly-formed Army Air Corps, and studied vigorously with other young men to master the basics of flight. He was chosen first among other applicants, and after being promoted to First Lieutenant he was hustled off to the East Coast, where he joined other servicemen aboard the luxury liner Queen Mary. It was yet another adventure in Chet Keller's life.
Chet recalled in later years, to his friends and caretakers, his war service overseas. Most of the transport ships that left the United States, headed for England, were usually escorted by destroyers for safety. But the Queen Mary was considered one of the fastest ships in the world, and it journeyed unescorted, arriving in England in only four days. Chet remembered what a trying time it was for the soldiers aboard the Queen Mary, and how the captain had to zig zag the ship across the Atlantic, to minimize the chances of being torpedoed by German U boats.
U.S. Military personnel were issued cigarettes, and Chet used his allotment to trade with English crewmen, who had access to more luxurious food stored aboard the ship. The ship was so crowded with servicemen that sleeping cots were stacked three high in the luxury liners' empty swimming pool.
Arriving at a small English port, the U.S. soldiers were crowded onto a train and taken to their destination. Most of the soldiers took off their helmets and used backpacks as sitting cushions on the train. When they arrived, the soldiers were rushed off the train and on to their military quarters.
It was Chet's job to count the war planes taking off on bombing missions over Germany, and again when they returned. On every mission, ground personnel waited anxiously to see who would return and who wouldn't. Sometimes longtime friends or good buddies never returned to the home airfield.
After the war was over, when Chet was discharged from the Army, and given the option of returning to Oregon by plane, train, or bus, he took the money it cost to travel by air, and went back home by bus. Chet enjoyed a leisurely sightseeing trip back to Portland, staying in the cheapest hotels or the local YMCA.
And, Chet collected pipes from every city he visited, and bought a small portion of different tobaccos sold at individual cigar stores usually found on every corner of a big city. A memorable moment included a live concert by renowned actor and jazz singer Louis Prima, which he enjoyed when stopping in at the Governor Hotel in Chicago.
After arriving in Sellwood, and at his mother's house on Sherrett Street, Chet began work as an accountant at Portco Corporation, and also for a local Lutheran Church. The Portco Corporation was located in North Portland, and it manufactured "wood flour" that was a main ingredient in products like decks and roofs.
After his mother passed away in 1973, Chet returned to the solitary lifestyle he enjoyed the most. Television was his lifeline, and Chet spent most of his time relishing Sherlock Holmes serials, and watching football games and golf during the weekends. After his retirement, Chet devoted his time to walks in the neighborhood, or watching sporting events with his friends like Don Long and Frank Olson. When they came to see him, Chet was usually found in his huge recliner wearing a tattered robe, with a TV tray propped up against his knees and a small heater nearby to keep his feet warm.
Golfing was still a passion, and several times a week he could be found walking the greens of various golf clubs. Every year a group of ex-caddies from the Waverley Country Club, led by Sid Bryant, was given special permission by the Board to play a round at the Waverley Greens.
As the years passed, Chet spent less time outside or visiting neighbors, but block parties arranged by Genie Espenel coaxed him outside and away from his recliner from time to time. Personal caretakers like Genie, Maureen Connelly, and neighbor Kristen Long, dropped in to spend some time listening to jazz tunes on station KMHD which would lead Chet to share his various stories.
Late last October Chet Keller passed away, fulfilling his desire to die in his own house, and in his own bed.
What Chet meant to those of us who knew him was summed up well by his neighbor Kristen Long, in a section of a poem she wrote:
Chet's youthful spirit and twinkling grin
Were shared with friends galore
His gentle hands reached out to greet us;
His family were those next door!
In ending this narrative, I would like to thank the many people who came forward to share memories of Chet Keller and his days in Sellwood that I have told you here. And I apologize in advance if I missed mentioning anyone.