Farewell to the Chief of Boathouse Row

Robert "Chief" Rasmussen, in 2011, on the day Conestoga High School dedicated its new boat to the man who ran a concessions truck in Fairmount Park for six decades.

His full name was Robert Grenold Rasmussen, but everyone along Kelly Drive knew him as "Chief."

The venerable concessions salesman first set up along Boathouse Row in the late 1970s. He couldn’t remember the names of all of the children buying his soft pretzels and sodas, so he’d call out to them, “How you doing, Chief?”

They’d call back, “Good, Chief.”

The nickname stuck.

On Monday, "Chief" Rasmussen, 90, died after suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.  He came from a family of concessionaires — the Rasmussens once owned as many as 14 stands. As a teenager in the 1940s, he took up the family business in Fairmount Park. He had continued ever since.

“He was a worker his whole life,” said lifelong friend Tom Rogers, 65, who first worked for him at age 16.

He continued to ply his trade into his 80s, though he didn’t need the money. His niece Susan Horton recalled him telling the family, “What am I going to do all day? Sit at home?”

“He felt like Fairmount Park was his home,” Horton said.

Anyone rowing or jogging or cycling along the boathouses would encounter Chief and his red van seven days a week, rain or shine.

“He wasn’t the kind of guy to lay back and put his feet up,” said Drexel University assistant crew coach Nick Baker.

Baker first met Chief while rowing on the Schuylkill in the early 2000s. When he came back to Philadelphia to coach in 2009, Chief still recognized him. He would often ask how the team was performing, and if there were any upcoming races.

“He was an iconic figure on Boathouse Row,” Baker said.

Generations of customers remember his spartan setup — the table in front of his van stacked with candies, Gatorades, and snacks. His famous pretzels stayed inside the van; they were fresher that way.

He also made sure to keep a silver bowl filled with water for dogs thirsty for a free drink.

“Even if people didn’t buy anything, he always wanted to make sure the dogs had water,” said Bruce Konopka, assistant rowing coach at Episcopal Academy.

His sense of charity extended beyond his canine friends.  

If kids didn’t have any money on them, Rogers recalled, he would offer a snack anyway and ask to be paid later.

And in the late 1960s, Horton said, he decided to employ a homeless man named Kellogg who lived near his stand. “He wanted to respect the man,” Horton said.

Chief spent his last day on Boathouse Row in 2014, after two falls and broken hips left him unable to work. Kelly Drive hasn’t been the same without him around.

“If he wasn’t there, you noticed,” Baker said. “It was a surprise.”

“You never think those people are going to leave, and it wasn’t until he wasn’t there that you realize there was a void,” Konopka said.

His memory will be forever enshrined along Kelly Drive. In 2011, the Conestoga High School rowing team dedicated a new boat to him, painting "Chief" in thick block letters along the slender frame.

And then there’s the plaque bearing his name, which occupies the center of a plain wooden bench across from where he used to park his van.

It reads, “A friend to rowers for more than 65 years.”

He is survived by a longtime friend, John Pantages, and nieces and nephews.

A viewing will begin at 10:30 a.m. Saturday, March 18, at O’Leary Funeral Home, 640 E. Springfield Rd., Springfield, Delaware County. A funeral service will follow at 11:45. Burial will be at Oakland Cemetery.

Contributions may be made to the Philadelphia SPCA, 350 E. Erie Ave., Philadelphia 19134.

dmurrell@philly.com
215-854-5145

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