Fred Chichester — lover of cars, puns, Earth, math and community — dies at 84
By LOUIS C. HOCHMAN
Fred Chichester, a longtime Montclair resident known along with his wife for environmental activism and community spirit, died this week.
"Very sad to learn that our dear friend, longtime Montclair activist, perpetual Cornucopia Network leader and all-around wonderful person Fred Chichester has slipped away," Gray Russell, Montclair's sustainability officer, wrote on Facebook Saturday, May 8. "His incessantly punny wordplay humor, engineer’s mind-set and simple wisdoms will be missed."
Chichester died May 6. He was 84 years old.
He was an electrical engineer and a control systems analyst, as described by his obituary from the Prout Funeral Home. His work contributed to the development of the Blackbird spy plane and the Apollo 11 lunar module rocket engine controls.
In 2019, describing his work on Apollo 11, Chichester said it's impossible to be prepared in advance for such a project: "The best preparation in general is to go through the mathematics and engineering of it."
He was a deacon of the Bloomfield Presbyterian Church on the Green for nearly 50 years, his obituary recalls.
After he retired, he was a math tutor to children until the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
"Fred Chichester was a friend to the sick, the old and anyone with car troubles," his obituary states.
Jose German Gomez, chair of the Northeast Earth Coalition, knew Chichester for 20 years. He recalled Chichester was president of the Cornucopia Network — a nonprofit organization dedicated to encouraging organic and local food raising and distribution — while German Gomez was treasurer.
"He was passionate about fighting leaf blowers and polluters," German Gomez said. "He was a strong advocate for the good causes and a regular in our township meetings. He was an antiwar activist and literally a rocket scientist and mathematics genius. Fred will be missed."
Chichester's obituary said he was also a proud Eagle Scout and an active member of the Montclair Society of Engineers. He'd previously been an active member of the Montclair NAACP. .,
James E. Harris, the Montclair NAACP's second vice president and a former chair of its education committee, said in an email Chichester had been a "very loyal dedicated member" of the group for several years.
"He was generous in sharing knowledge about his work with the United States space program where he serve as engineer. He was very special in his knowledge about tutoring and mentoring students and especially students from urban schools," Harris said. "He believes that all students could learn and excel with proper support and encouragement."
He was married for 45 years to Patricia Clark Kenschaft, a mathematics professor, writer and avid gardener. Both were strong supporters of the NAACP Education Committee, Harris said. The family’s organic vegetable garden was often opened up for visitors on weekends.
In a 2019 Montclair Local profile of Kenschaft, Chichester spoke of his love of automobiles:
"I think I got started when we got the house [where the couple lived on Gordonhurst Avenue], in 1975," he said at the time. "The first car I ever bought was a used car and it lasted nine years. I figured buying used cars was a better way to go than buying new cars. I drive them by turns, and I do choose cars for efficiency. What is my favorite car varies from day to day. I’m really very fond of the Camry wagon. The car in the garage is the oldest of my cars."
Kenschaft and Chichester were rescued from their home in February of this year when the house caught fire. A neighbor had seen fire and smoke coming from the house, and worried the couple might be inside. Firefighters and police officers entered the house and got the couple out.
“There’s a lot of people, a lot of environmentalists, a lot of us greenies, as I like to call them, who are very concerned about them, and are glad they are safe,” Russell said after the blaze.
Afterward, Montclair Township Councilman Peter Yacobellis and German Gomez both described a generous outpouring of community support and solidarity for the beloved couple.
“It’s Montclair, right? It’s what we do,” Yacobellis said at the time.
In a post to the Secret Montclair Facebook group Saturday, friend Mike Lo described meeting Chichester shortly after moving to Bloomfield in 1971.
"He was one of the smartest persons I ever met," Lo recalled. "There wasn’t a subject that he was unfamiliar with."
He wrote that Chichester taught him all about cars — about researching their reliability and dependability. Chichester even helped Lo find his first vehicle, he wrote.
"He was the type of guy that would go out of his way to help people," Lo wrote. When Lo was having difficulty with college classes, Chichester helped with that, too.
Lo sent Chichester a note this past Christmas, filling him in on recent events in his life. Even after Chichester's own difficult year, suffering a fire and health issues of his own, Chichester reached out "because he felt from the tone of my note to him that I was depressed and he wanted to see if he could help in any way," Lo wrote.
Lo continued: "Imagine that! A friend that was having serious health issues himself was worried about reaching out to me. It really touched my heart and I’m glad we had that chance to talk."
Chichester is survived by his stepdaughter, Lori Kenschaft (Randy Smith); stepson Ed Kenschaft (Genia); grandson, Nathaniel Kenschaft; brother, Tom Chichester; siblings-in-law, Sue and Rick Mullins and Roger Clark; two nieces and four nephews, according to his obituary.
A memorial service will be held at the Bloomfield Presbyterian Church on the Green when it is safe for all to gather. The Prout Funeral Home's website will post updates about service times and dates.
Family members ask that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to Centurion Ministries, which seeks freedom for innocent people in prison.
— Includes previous reporting by Erin Roll, Gwen Orel and Kelly Nicholaides