CHATHAM – “To Pete!”
A group of six men and women leaned in to the bar at the Chatham Squire and raised their glasses in a toast to Peter J. Shelley, who worked here from 1977 until he passed away two weeks ago at age 60 on Christmas Day. They were among hundreds who packed into the iconic bar to pay tribute and celebrate Pete’s life on a chilly Sunday afternoon in early January.
In the “big, twisted family” of those who worked at the Chatham Squire, Pete Shelley was a unique spirit, according to Jean Needel, who worked with Pete for 25 of the 36 years he worked at the Squire.
“He was a sweet, loving, kind, generous man,” said Needel.
(See slide show below.)
And on Cape Cod, where taverns are the places we gather and friends are those we cherish during the long winters, Pete Shelley was a reliable fixture at the first and a pal for life, which was, not coincidently, the name of a foundation he co-founded to help hospitality workers who had fallen on rough times.
One mourner referred to the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” when she said, “Think about how Pete touched your life.”
According to his obituary, Shelley was born in Washington, DC on October 16, 1953. But he grew up in South Chatham in a close-knit neighborhood, according to Myra Belliveau, who lived nearby. “We had our own little culture,” she said of South Chatham.
Belliveau, who is a teacher in Harwich, said the memorial service was like old home week for Chatham townies. Her sister was in the class of 1971 with Peter at Chatham High School and Belliveau’s husband was in Peter’s sister’s class at the high school.
After high school, Peter Shelley studied at Cape Cod Community College. He started working as a steward at the Chatham Squire in 1977 and stayed there for his whole career.
“A lot of people here today are Chathamites from way back. I’m seeing people I haven’t seen in years,” Belliveau said.
As for Pete, she said, “he was the nicest human being who walked the earth.”
Recalling him as a boy, she said, “He was very quiet but very kind. You always knew he was there and you felt safe when he was around.”
Gretchen Cauble of Chatham, said she worked with Pete for 28 years at the Squire in the summers. “I’ve done it all, waitress, hosting, bartending,” she said of her work at the Squire. The rest of the year, she runs the Rocking Unicorn Nursery School in West Chatham.
Peter would always put aside things he thought would be fun for the children at the preschool, like unusual boxes or big jars, Cauble said. “If he thought it was interesting, he saved it,” she said.
Cauble said there was such a large showing at the memorial service, “because his touch was just so widespread; he was so interconnected in his quiet way.”
Marguerite Falconer, whose Falconer Gallery was for many years across the street from the Squire, said of Pete, “he was always smiling and always willing and able to help, like nothing was too much to ask. He had a big heart.”
Also speaking of Pete Shelley’s heart was Richard Costello, who, as co-owner of the Chatham Squire, gave an emotional eulogy.
Costello said it was ironic that Pete had a bad heart, because “all he was, was mostly heart.”
He said the best way to remember Pete is “be nice to each other, care for each other as much as you can, and tell someone you care about them.”
He asked how many ladies remember Pete kissing their hand, and a lot of hands in the bar went up, to much laughter.
Costello said a major change came in Pete’s life when he found out that for health reasons he couldn’t drink and he embraced the tenets of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Costello spoke highly of AA. “It’s such a great organization. It’s probably saving 90% of Cape Codders from falling apart.”
He said after AA meetings, Pete would tell Costello he heard five stories, meaning the Squire was mentioned five times.
Costello said he jokingly suggested to Pete that each of the former drinkers send $20 per month to the Squire in memory of the good times they had at the bar. Peter told Costello he didn’t think that was going to happen.
One thing that people at the Squire remembered Pete for, was as the “brownie fairy,” Costello said, since he would frequently make a batch of brownies for staffers.
One waitress said if she arrived to work in a lousy mood, the brownies would cheer her up.
Costello said he suggested to Pete that he order brownie mix through the restaurant’s wholesalers to save money, but he would have none of it. Instead, he once saw him coming out of the Village Market “loaded down with two bags full of brownie mix.”
“He was full of compassion, love, caring and giving back as much as he could,” Costello said.
Costello also spoke of Pete’s good luck, which earned him the nickname, “Lucky Pierre.” Down at the Yardarm in Orleans, one of his favorite bars, Pete would win bar pools so often that upon learning Pete was in the pool, some other regulars would opt out.
That luck extended to Pete’s friends. “We’re all very lucky he was in our lives,” Costello said.
Pete’s luck reached a pinnacle a couple of years ago when his name was chosen in an affordable housing lottery in Harwich, so that he was able to purchase his first home. “It was the best thing in the world for him,” Richard Sullivan, general manager of the Squire, said.
Sullivan said Pete was in charge of ordering and receiving all the food and liquor at the Squire, making the entire basement his realm. Several people referred to it as Pete’s “subterranean villa.”
Sullivan said Pete’s long years at the Squire were in part a tribute to the bar’s owners and the loyalty they instilled. He said the Squire employs 135 people every year, and looking around the room at those gathered for the service, he said many were former employees, customers, food and liquor sales people who worked with Pete, and “Friends of Bill,” who got to know Pete after he gave up alcohol.
While calling Peter, “completely pure and sincere,” Sullivan said Pete also had “a wicked sense of humor.” And he had a fondness for quoting Groucho Marx.
Costello said he realized after the shock of hearing that Pete had died that Pete was one of his best friends. “He was part of my life,” Costello said.
After Costello spoke, a young bagpiper walked slowly into the bar, playing “Amazing Grace,” and the barroom grew unusually quiet, as some wept softly.
The Squire’s other owner, George Payne, was not able to attend the memorial service because he was out of town and his flight was cancelled because of the snowstorm. But he sent a statement to be read, calling Pete, “the kindest, gentlest man I’ve ever known. He was the backbone of the Squire.”
Peter’s sister, Veronica Terrio of Harwich said of the large number of people who came to the memorial service, “It’s amazing how many people he touched.” Besides his sister and her husband, Robert, he is also survived by his brother, Frank Shelley and his wife, Diane, of Weymouth.
Belliveau said that during the memorial speeches, “I don’t think there was a dry eye in here.”
Amy Tagliaferri, who worked as a bartender at the Squire for decades, said the Squire will be forever changed without Pete Shelley. “Some people may come in this summer and wonder what has changed. New customers will never know the real Squire. There’s a piece missing that will never be replaced,” she said.
During the memorial service, there was a 50/50 raffle for the Pals For Life (PFL) Foundation. PFL is now raising money for a scholarship in Peter Shelley’s name.
– Laura M. Reckford