Try, try again.
Everyone appreciates the perseverance of those who never give up.
J. Herbert “Bertie” Chambers was a perfect example of how the spectacular was achieved, against all odds.
Chambers unsuccessfully ran for mayor of West Chester five times in 20 years. Eventually he won the post on his sixth try.
During the fifties and sixties, nearly three voted Republican against each Democrat in the borough. The Democratic Chambers overcame those numbers in the 1969 election to take over as mayor.
I’ve heard that during those times you can’t get a courthouse job unless you’re a registered Republican. No Dem had ever been elected to the highest office in the borough and it had been more than 50 years since a Democrat had even sat on the borough council.
This week I sat down for a working lunch at DK Diner with Bertie’s son, Tom Chambers. We chatted about politics, travel and the good old days (yes, my head is full of gray hair myself now). We also talked about the book on Bertie, written by his wife, Alice Chambers, “His Honor the Mayor”.
Tom Chambers landed a seat on Borough Council the day his father won the post of mayor and Tom went on to be mayor.
âHe might have lost the election, but he was never really beaten,â Tom said of all the losses. âPeople knew it was time for a change.
âYou can be the best candidate in the world, but the timing has to be right. The city needed a boom. Elections should be based on qualifications.
Alice Chambers included an editorial from the Daily Local News from November 7, 1969 in the book, which appeared in the newspaper after Bertie’s great victory.
It says that his record “would have sent the average man to the showers, but not Chambers”.
The local called Bertie “the man with the greatest political force on the West Chester scene”.
Bertie was the standard bearer of the two-party system. And a lot of those Republicans must have walked across the aisle on the Chamber side.
Tom Chambers helped run his and his father’s campaigns in 1969. Probably, for the very first time, candidates campaigned door to door. Knocking on the door is common in local elections today, but it was not then.
Bertie Chambers was also a firefighter. When he knocked on a door, a resident told him that he belonged to the wrong political party. Chambers had previously visited the house during a fire and climbed onto the roof to help put out a fire.
After hearing they were from a Republican family, Chambers asked the resident why she didn’t want to know which party he was a member of when he put out their fire. Probably embarrassed, the owner then invited the candidate in and they chatted for half an hour.
Tom Chambers said that knocking on the door gave him and his father a better understanding of the âheartbeat of the peopleâ.
Around midnight on the night of the 1969 election, a spontaneous parade of 30 cars passed through West Chester. No one complained about the horns in this historic procession.
It was amusing when a trumpeter in the lead car honked the horn as revelers passed the Elks Club, a regular Republican Party hangout.
âThere was that hometown feel,â Tom told me. “We fought hard but it wasn’t the animosity you see today.”
The timing was right for the Democratic victories of both chambers.
Tom fought the Borough’s plans to build a parking garage on Church and Chestnut streets, where the Farmers’ Market is currently located.
The Quaker Chestnut Street meeting house on the site was demolished, but the garage was never built. A non-binding referendum showed that a large majority of the citizens of West Chester did not want the garage to be built.
Tom Chambers won a platform by opposing the garage. He qualified the interim borough council as arrogant since the council âdid not have to answer to anyoneâ and therefore did not recognize the 20-1 referendum vote against the garage because it was not official.
Tom Chambers is proud of the work his father did to change and significantly transform the police service. The elder Chambers also confronted and appeased rioters and served in a high-profile police murder trial.
Bertie reportedly said the riots were “just times of hatred and misunderstanding” when understanding and order needed to be restored.
Bertie rarely left the house without wearing a buttonhole. Alice’s book cover photo also shows a flower worn on the buttonhole of her suit jacket, as do most of the dozens of photographs included.
Oh my God, how times have changed. Tom and I also joked about how my own father would bitterly complain about what Calvin Trillon wrote in the New Yorker if the kids “occupied the ledges around the county courthouse steps.”
Trillon wrote that the hype around those sitting on the steps continued to symbolize West Chester’s “traditional quiet”.
West Chester’s first Democratic mayor lived from 1904 to 1978. He died of ALS.
Bertie Chambers’ last official act as mayor was to swear in his son Tom as mayor.
Bill Rettew is a weekly columnist and native of Chester County. He may have been born in the borough, but he’s not sure as the Chester County Hospital straddles both West Goshen Township and West Chester. He can be contacted at [email protected]