Longtime Norwich resident leaves behind legacy of generosity

The late George Chartress is seen in this undated photo on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire. According to Chartress' sister Leslie Tansey, hitting the ice runway there was on her brother's bucket list.  (Courtesy of Leslie Tansey)
The late George Chartress is seen in this undated photo on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire. According to Chartress' sister Leslie Tansey, hitting the ice runway there was on her brother's bucket list. (Courtesy of Leslie Tansey)

Westerly — On the day he died, George Chartress III was exceptionally happy.

The late 65-year-old was down in Florida, putting the final touches on his quickly approaching retirement after a lifetime of hard work.

He had gone around to get a new driver’s license and sort out his taxes and Social Security benefits. A U.S. Army veteran, he had visited the local Veterans Affairs office. Perhaps most importantly, he had spruced up his new Florida hangar with heating/cooling units and toilets.

Before he took off from Lake City, Fla., on the morning of Oct. 31 — he was an avid flyer — he uttered a few memorable words to a friend there, according to Dooney Aviation employee Mike Ferrigno.

“He said, ‘This is the happiest day of my life,’” Ferrigno recounted. “A few hours later, he was dead.”

Records show Chartress left Lake City in his 1966 Beechcraft Debonair about 7:40 a.m. that day. By 10:30 a.m., he and his Dooney Aviation copilot, Ricky Shawn, were approaching the Columbus County Municipal Airport in Whiteville, N.C., where they had planned to refuel.

About 400 yards south of the airport, the plane lost power, heading straight for the tree line. There wasn’t much Chartress could do.

Shawn suffered a broken jaw in the wreck. Chartress didn’t make it.

The National Transportation Safety Board continues to investigate the incident.

“He was a good pilot,” said Jim Goodrich, a Dooney Aviation employee and longtime friend of Chartress. “What happened down there, I don’t think anybody will ever know.”

On Friday, Goodrich had nothing but kind words to say about his friend, a plumber by trade and longtime Norwich resident who always was willing to lend a helping hand. The two met about 1999 at Dooney, chatting casually at first and then more frequently as Chartress kept coming around.

Aware of Chartress’ reputation as a nitpicky, high-quality handyman, Goodrich at one point asked Chartress to help him construct a log cabin in Stonington.

“It was extremely complicated,” Goodrich said of the cabin. “In 2½ years, he got it done ... He was good at everything.”

The two, aligned politically as staunch Republicans, were fast friends. They began having lunch every other day. Sometimes they’d fly together — to Long Island, New Jersey, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania.

A mainstay at Dooney, Chartress often would make repairs there. Now the toilets, doors and other things he fixed serve as reminders of his absence.

“He very rarely ever said, ‘I can’t,’” Goodrich said.

Sometimes Chartress helped Goodrich with sales. Other times Chartress took care of Goodrich’s dog.

“It’s like my right hand’s missing now,” Goodrich said.

Downstairs at Dooney, where friends feel like family, Ferrigno and his co-worker Kevin Allen shared similar thoughts. On Saturdays, Chartress would sit in the lobby with a muffin and some coffee. On Sundays, he’d fly. If Allen’s daughter, who has Down syndrome, was around, Chartress would chat with her, trying to figure out what makes her tick. A dog lover, he sometimes said hi to Allen’s boxer, too.

"Everybody's pretty sad," Ferrigno said when asked about the company's atmosphere.

Standing in Dooney’s lobby, Allen recalled when he was dealing with pancreatic cancer. Chartress, unprovoked, went to Allen's house while Allen was in the hospital to install a more accessible tub, free of charge.

“Every time I get into my tub, I think of him,” Allen said.

Benevolence was a Chartress trademark. Once, his sister Leslie Tansey said, he came to his mother’s house at 3 a.m. asking for a hose. There were children at a nearby group home who were without water, he told her, and he was going to fix it.

Chartress additionally volunteered with two Norwich churches and Habitat for Humanity. And he was quick to offer an airlift to adults who needed rides or children who were curious.

But he also had a quirky side, Allen and Ferrigno explained. When he wasn't flying his plane or helicopter, he was on one of his two motorcycles, one of which was a green Harley-Davidson, Allen said.

"He would wear this chrome helmet with a big spike on top," Ferrigno said, laughing. "I wish I got a picture of that thing."

Chartress' affinity for mechanics started at an early age, Tansey said. At 10, Chartress was helping their uncle install florescent lights. Around the same time, he borrowed money from their mother to buy a lawnmower, then a snow blower, so he could work on other people’s yards. By 16, he was working at Radio Shack.

“He worked his whole life,” Tansey said.

Chartress lived in Norwich most of his adult life. Recently, however, his mom had moved in with Tansey in New Jersey and Chartress had moved into his mom’s Waterford home.

“He worked in her gardens and would keep them just like she did,” Tansey said. “He would send her pictures constantly so she could see.”

Chartress wasn’t married, but he was with his partner, Irene DeJordy, for 27 years. DeJordy’s daughter, Renee Kudrak, said she considered Chartress family and he considered her the same.

Tansey knew how much her brother loved flying, but still worried every time he was in the air. She texted him before he took off, she said, and always asked him to let her know when he was back on the ground.

On the day of the crash, Tansey got a message from her son urging her to call as soon as possible.

“I knew immediately what had happened,” she said.

l.boyle@theday.com

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