His can-do spirit, wrapped in an avuncular blend of curmudgeonly charm, accounts for the parade of people who packed his farewell party the other day: electricians and stockbrokers, plumbers and lawyers, the pest control guy and tenants who moved out a decade ago, returning to shake the hand of the guy who arrived early to work to let the doughnut man in at 4 a.m.
Ron Chevalier is a child of the Great Depression, a Charlestown guy who bounced around at odd jobs in around Boston, a natural tinkerer who wondered how things worked and then set out to solve the riddle of the broken pipe, the clogged drain, or the overheated boiler.
So, in 1968, when the old Boston Federal Savings Bank was looking for a new custodian, or “building engineer,’’ Chevalier found himself in the finely appointed office of the bank’s president, and the two men — one in overalls, the other in pinstripes — hit it off instantly.
“He was an excellent guy. If he had time, he’d come down and we’d chew the fat for hours,’’ Chevalier told me the other morning outside his old basement office at 30 Federal St. on Post Office Square.
And Ron Chevalier, 88, knows how to chew the fat.
He’s loaded with stories of his long working life on Federal Street, a stately seven-story, stone-block building of which he knows every square inch from its rubberized roof to basement pumps that propel water to its kitchens and restrooms.
“I was always a stickler,’’ he said. “If someone called and said, ‘Oh, Ron, we have a leak up here,’ I didn’t want to wait for some requisition form. I’d go right up and fix it. No questions asked.’’
“Well, there will never be anybody like him again,’’ said John Preotle, a developer whose firm bought the building in 1995. “Anybody who cares as much as he does is helping us do a good job, you know? And he’s got stories. You think you’ve heard the last one. You say, ‘How’s it going?’ and he’ll tell you another story.’’
Like this one: early in his tenure and the master of all things mechanical, he was at work late one night when he stumbled into an office he believed was unoccupied. Wrong. There was a lawyer in there who was — shall we say — vigorously cross-examining a young woman in a decidedly non-verbal way.
“There was a guy in there with a girlfriend he’d brought back from the barroom,’’ Chevalier recalled with an impish grin. “I said, ‘You take her to a hotel and don’t come back here at all.’ He didn’t know what the hell to say. I told him: ‘Next time I’ll go in and tell your boss.’ Well, that never happened again.’’
A month after Preotle’s firm bought the building, he hired Harry Bovee as its new manager. The new owners wanted to proceed carefully with their new building so they hired engineers and consultants to check the place from stem to stern. They produced a think and expensive report, which they shared with Chevalier.
“Ron’s a pretty black-and-white guy,’’ Bovee said. “He tells it like it is. And he’s like, ‘What the hell is this? That’s not how this thing works. This thing goes to this, it doesn’t go to that. You tap this twice and it’ll work fine. This thing’s been dead for 30 years. Don’t worry about it.’ He was the report.’’
About nine years ago, Chevalier was at his home in Lynn, sorting through a stack of bills spread out before him on his kitchen table, when he suddenly fell over. It was a stroke. It kept him out of work for months and has left him with right-sided weakness.
“I figured it was time to go, but, you know, I didn’t lose a dime,’’ he said. “My pay was still deposited in the bank every month. It was like I was part of a family for God’s sake. How many places would do that?’’
‘If someone . . . said, ‘Oh, Ron, we have a leak up here,’ I didn’t want to wait for some requisition form. I’d go right up and fix it.’Ron Chevalier
When he had recuperated enough to return to work, he decided to repay that generosity, working as hard as ever for the next five years. “I owe Mr. John Preotle,’’ he said. “And until I think I have paid him back, I’ll do it my way. And I gave it everything I had until my time was up.’’
When that time came the other day, Chevalier sat in a corner chair and a receiving line of sorts stretched out before him — smiling and thankful people who’d come to shake his hand, give him a hug, and wish him well.
“He’s slowing down a bit after the stroke,’’ said Christian Rojas, 39, of East Boston who worked with Chevalier and has now moved into his basement office. “It’s difficult for him to do normal things. He’s a good guy. He’s a mentor. He has integrity. He doesn’t want to feel like he needs help from others.’’
But he’s going to get it anyway.
In the corner of the room where the retirement bash was held was a large vanilla cake with white frosting and a message inscribed in blue icing. It read: “Iron Man Ron Chevalier hangs them up just short of 50 years. Thanks, Ron! Will 30 Federal Street survive?’’
Nearby there was a framed photo of Rojas and other men who do what Chevalier did for nearly a half-century: fix what’s broken, clean what’s dirty, and coax balky machines back to life.
The inscription beneath it read: “Ron, you said you needed some work done at home. So please pick a Saturday and we’ll happily do what we do best!’’
When that work crew assembles in Lynn some weekend this spring, Ron Chevalier will doubtlessly pitch in where he can, steadying a ladder, delivering a screw-driver, issuing some marching orders — orders delivered by a man who once upon a time did it all.
And loved it.