Former council member diesPublished 10:16am Wednesday, April 17, 2013
It may have been a while since Richard “Dick” Chaffee sat on the Austin City Council, but his work as a council member has not been forgotten.
“He was probably one of the best council members I ever worked for,” said Tom Dankert, the city’s administrative services director who worked with Dick during his terms on the council. “He was always looking out for the taxpayer.”
Richard “Dick” Chaffee, 70, died April 9 in an emergency room at the Austin hospital from complications of a lung disease. As an active member of the council, local clubs and the community as a whole, Dick left a lasting impression on the many who knew him.
Dick was born in Austin on Jan. 22, 1943, to Evelyn Marie and Dorwin John Chaffee. He grew up in Austin and graduated with the Austin High School class of 1961. After, Dick enlisted in the U.S. Navy and was later honorably discharged.
Even back then, Dick was very outgoing, said his wife, Colette Chaffee. About 48 years ago, after a late shift working as a nurse’s aid, Colette went out to eat with coworkers at a truck stop in the area. Dick, who was there separately, simply walked over and introduced himself. Before he left, he asked Colette out.
They later started dating. Often she’d have to specify when she wanted to have a night out with just the two of them, she added, or else Dick would start calling up friends to come out and join them.
“He always liked to do things with other people,” Colette said.
Early in his life, Dick worked at Nate’s, a farmers’ and merchants’ clothing store in Austin, where he developed his knowledge of sales. He also worked for a new Sears store that opened, then later took a position at the Hormel Foods plant. He was a fourth-generation Hormel employee, Colette said. His great-grandfather, George Peterson, was George A. Hormel’s first employee.
When he was laid off from the plant, he decided to instead enroll in Mankato State University. In the mid-80s, he graduated with a degree in marketing and started his own marketing company, where he did work for trade shows.
Dick was a community-minded man, Colette said. He was a member of a number of clubs in Austin, and made a point of supporting local activities. He paid his dues, went to fundraisers and shopped locally whenever possible, only leaving Austin if what he needed wasn’t available there. He was also a longtime member of the Austin Country Club.
On Nov. 5, 1996, Dick was sworn in to the City Council. Colette said he ran for a seat so he would have some say in the way the city operated. It was the first of several terms he spent on the council.
“He really did try to do his best for the city of Austin and his best for the people,” she said.
Dankert agreed, saying Dick was the type of council member the taxpayers need. Throughout his term on the council, Dick was stuck to the same focus of avoiding tax hikes, Dankert said. He was personable to city staff and open to taking input from anybody who wished to give it.
Dick also had a knack for remembering faces and being friendly with those he had met. When Dankert saw him on the golf course or walking around town, Dick would reminisce on the work the two of them did together for the city.
Dick began having health problems during the last few years of his life.
“He had been having problems with shortness of breath,” Colette said.
In 2010, Dick, a non-smoker, was diagnosed with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis — scarring of the lungs. He was put on oxygen, and for a while stayed at home. In May that year, doctors estimated he had two years to live.
Then, one day, he began to resume his social lifestyle, including playing golf with his friends.
“He said, ‘I’m not going to sit here and wait to die,’” Colette said. “‘I’m going to go out and do things.’”
Colette would later find Dick had kept notes on his calendar of how he felt on a given day, though he did not complain aloud about how he felt. One day in January 2013 listed the words “can’t breathe.” It was at about that point when his condition took a turn for the worse.
“I know he had trouble some days, but didn’t say anything,” Colette said.
Dick’s condition took a turn for the worse on Feb. 5, during a visit to St. Marys Hospital in Rochester. The staff found a bacterial infection in his lungs, which cut off the possibility of Dick getting a lung transplant to help treat his pulmonary fibrosis.
“They were afraid if they did it would just get into the new lung,” Colette said.
Colette said she regrets that Dick didn’t live longer, as he truly loved life.
“I know crotchety, ornery people who don’t ever want to do a thing … they live to be 100,” she said.
A funeral was held Saturday morning at St. Augustine Catholic Church, with a visitation Friday evening. Colette said several of those paying their respects thought Dick looked different then from how he had ever looked before.
“They couldn’t even imagine him without a smile on his face,” Colette said.