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Charles Donnelly, Jr. died June 5 in Hanover, Massachusetts. He was 72 years old. “I’m just a humble carpenter,” he used to say. Actually, he was a master craftsman, restoring hundreds of wooden doors and windows in Beacon Hill and Back Bay.
Charlie wanted to be a carpenter from the time he was 10. He spent summers in Dorchester joyously hammering nails into trees, pulling them out, and hammering them in again.
After technical school, he ended up in the weather-stripping business, where he became known for his precision. “Donnelly Weather Strip Service: Tight doors save money,” the slogan ran.
Eventually, prestigious clients wanted more. They recognized in Charlie someone who could measure their antique window panes to within a hair’s width, and who understood them like a glass whisperer. Word-of-mouth reference spread through elite neighborhoods, and he became a one-man business: very sophisticated technically, very simple administratively. Records were kept with pencil and paper, and the monthly calendar was on a yellow legal pad.
Charlie and his wife Susan wanted to live in an old house themselves, and they found it in Weymouth, in an 1820 Colonial, with paned bay windows and a dining-room fireplace. It needed redoing, of course — and not just the pink shag carpet in the kitchen. Even after he weather-stripped it, the front door was always a little hard to shut.
In a way, Charlie was always at work. On vacations, he’d notice a Shaker bench in a guest house, measure it with a dollar bill, and reconstruct it a week later in his basement. Friends and relatives solicited construction advice — he was like the doctor at a cocktail party, checking rashes. He’d walk into someone’s dining room, turn a chair over to inspect the underside, and render his critical opinion.
As a father, he built a mini-workbench under the basement stairs for his three daughters. But they often preferred to play Daddy’s Favorite Game, where Charlie lay down on the carpet and fell asleep — deeply, unwakeably asleep — while they styled barrettes in his hair.
He resented the limitations of growing old, and his death, almost by strange fortune, was sudden. It took a week to plan the funeral, though. A friend and fellow master craftsman created the vessel that held his ashes, using wood from Charlie’s shop. Scotch and Cheez-Its were served at the church reception, and donations were collected for the food pantry where he volunteered.
His daughters still listen to his voice on their cell phones; stuck in traffic, he’d call to notify one of them that he’d said a rosary for her. His grandchildren still remember his jokes.
And his wife of 47 years, who knew him best, still misses the sound of a wood planer, and the smell of sawdust.
Did you know Charles Donnelly, Jr.? Share your memories in the comments section.
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