PITTSTON – In the days when the city's downtown was bustling with shoppers and stores lined Public Square and South Main Street, one businessman sat quietly waiting for customers to sample his wares.
Peter Chaivanik, affectionately known as Pencil Pete, was a man familiar to everybody – kind of an iconic figure in the city at a time before the Americans with Disabilities Act and mandatory accessibility.
Chaivanik had Cerebral Palsy. He couldn't walk. His speech was difficult to understand. But he had a smile that could warm cold hearts, and whenever someone would drop some money in his cup, he would smile as he struggled to say Thank you.
He was part of the fabric of Wilkes-Barre, said Frank Henry, owner of Martz Trailways. He was not a vagrant – he was an institution and a positive one at that.
Henry and many others interviewed said the same thing about Chaivanik -- he never complained and he was an inspiration to all.
And when you gave him something, he felt good, but you felt better than he did by helping him out, Henry said.
Chaivanik grew up on Lambert Street in Pittston, son of John and Anna Bauristick Chaivanik. He was of Czechoslovakian heritage. His father died years before his mother, who passed away in September 1961.
Chaivanik was taken in by Joseph and Sonia Dulney, neighbors on Lambert Street. They made Pete a part of their family. They would drive him to Wilkes-Barre in the morning and pick him up in the evening.
The Dulneys' son, Joseph, still lives on Lambert Street a few doors from the house in which he grew up. Dulney was born in 1961, the year Chaivanik, then 39, came to live with the family.
He was part of the family, Dulney said. He was a good guy.
Dulney said Pete loved to watch professional wrestling – his favorite was Chief Jay Strongbow. Occasionally Pete would take a drink of whiskey or beer, Dulney said.
Sometimes he would put a raw egg in his Four Roses, he said.
Dulney said Chaivanik would eat anything – never complaining about the food or anything else. He would go with the Dulney family wherever they went – Rocky Glen Park, Harveys Lake and Niagara Falls to name a few destinations.
He was like a brother, Dulney said.
Chaivanik had several wagons over the years. Dulney learned to make them and fashioned a few that were lighter and folded for easier transport.
Even though Chaivanik couldn't drive, he bought his own cars, Dulney said. He remembered a Monte Carlo that Chaivanik really liked.
He made money, Dulney said. He was self-sufficient; he paid for everything he needed.
Chaivanik liked to go to the Barnesville beer festival in Schuylkill County, and he could be seen at the St. Ann's Novena in Scranton and at the Bloomsburg Fair – always on the last night.
He never talked about his cerebral palsy, Dulney said. We overlooked it – it was never something he dwelled on, nor did we.
Dulney doesn't know where Pete came up with the idea of selling pencils, but the concept worked. Most people, Dulney said, would drop money in Pete's hat or cup and not take a pencil.
John Aponick taught a business course at what was then Wilkes College in the 1960s and 1970s. In one of his classes he used Chaivanik as an example of entrepreneurship.
He went to work every day, he was a hard worker, he set up his own shop and he regularly marketed a product and didn't rely on the government to subsidize what he was doing, Aponick said. That's why he was an entrepreneur.
Scott Burnside, whose family owned 50 percent of The Boston Store during the time Chaivanik was selling pencils from his wagon, said it was clear that Pete was always welcome.
In those days there was an overhang where he could stay dry or seek shade, Burnside said. People loved him. When I think of those days and the downtown, Pete is one of the first people I remember.
Several current employees of Boscov's remember Chaivanik from his days in front of what was then Fowler Dick & Walker the Boston Store. They remember him more from their youth than from working at the store.
Jolynn Materewicz, who has worked at Boscov's for 32 years, said Pete always had a positive attitude.
He gave you a lot of encouragement, she said. When I first saw him I was uneasy, but the more you were around him you realized he was a friendly guy and he inspired people to go forward.
Mark Todd, who was shopping at Boscov's on Friday, remembered Chaivanik from years ago when he worked downtown.
He always said hello when we walked by, Todd said. He was out there in all kinds of weather and he always smiled.
Chuck Thomas has worked at the South Main Street store since 1966. He said that at first glance one might look at Pete and say Awww, look at that poor guy.
But, Thomas said, his opinion changed after he got to know Pete.
He made me be thankful for what I had, Thomas said. I felt if he was sitting there selling his pencils, I should do something with my life.
Dulney said he and many others learned a lot from Pete.
There should be more people like him, he said.
When Chaivanik died in 1988 at age 66, Dulney said, many people came to the wake and funeral to pay their respects.
My mom had a good heart, he said. She made sure Pete was cared for.
Asked what lessons he learned from Chaivanik, Dulney had the perfect answer.
Be respectful of one another, he said. Never look down on anybody. If we all were that way, maybe the world would be a better place.