William Chafe, 'the last of the Water Street merchants,' dead at 81

·3 min read
Tina Barrett/Facebook
Tina Barrett/Facebook

The downtown St. John's business community is mourning the loss of a community staple Friday, following the death of William (Bill) Chafe.

Chafe, the name behind Chafe & Sons, died peacefully Thursday at Pleasant View Towers in St. John's. He was 81 years old.

According to his obituary, Chafe began his career as a teacher and high school principal in Long Harbour. He would later join his father's clothing business, which has stood on Water Street since 1929.

"Everybody knows where Chafe's is on Water Street," Gail Decker, owner of Next Clothing Company, said Friday. She said she uses the store to provide directions to people. "I always say it's 'past Chafe's' or 'before Chafe's.' And it's still here.

"It's an institution."

Decker says Chafe's emphasis of maintaining a family business is the reason behind its longevity on the street, as she says Chafe's has never hired outside the family.

"They've worked as a family.… They've kept up with the times," she said. "Their customers became friends.… It takes a lot of hard work, they've obviously done something right."

CBC
CBC

The sentiment is echoed by Byron's Clothing for Men owner Byron Murphy, who has been on the street since 1985.

"He's got great boys, the sons and his daughter and his wife, and they've all run the business," he said. "If you're open 30 years or as long as they've been open, customers keep coming back. That's the only way you stay open."

When Murphy was beginning in business on the street, he said Chafe would often pop his head in to check on how business was going, and he was always making sure people were looked after.

"He was a gentleman. He was just a nice guy," he said. "He would never come in and tell you how to operate your business, but he was always curious about everybody else's business. We all want to keep people on the street, and he was a big advocate of that."

'The last of the Water Street merchants'

Former St. John's mayor Dennis O'Keefe knew Chafe for many years, teaching some of his children throughout the years in high school.

"I remember Mr. Chafe and his father here on Water Street in the 1950s when I was a young fella … selling the Sunday Herald," he said.

"Mr. Chafe is the last of the Water Street merchants that made this city so great in the mid-20th century."

Eddy Kennedy/CBC
Eddy Kennedy/CBC

O'Keefe noted Chafe's has continued long after other businesses on the street closed their doors.

"As I look around here and I see the Chafe building and I see Electric Utilities, Connor's Drug Store and Silver's and on it goes," he said. "These are all Water Street merchants who did very well on Water Street. They're all gone, and Chafe the tailor is still here. I remember the old slogan: 'Chafe's makes the man if Chafe's make the clothes.'"

Chafe is survived by his wife of 59 years, Winnifred, seven children and eight grandchildren.

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