In the first part of August founding board member of Rancocas Pathways, kayaker, farmer and all around good soul passed away. Please see his obituary written by his sister Carol. He will be missed though his spirit live on and tugs one very sweep stroke into an eddy…Good stead on your journey. John Anderson, Director Rancocas Pathways
A truly unique spirit, rugged individualist, adventurer, farmer, conservationist, motorcyclist, Peace Corps volunteer, artisan woodworker, author, quirky prankster, military history and classic-TV trivia buff, gifted photographer, steadfast patriot, generous friend, loyal son, and lifelong nonconformist, John Charles Chitester quietly passed away on Sunday, August 7, 2022 in home hospice at the family’s Fernwood Springs Farm in Westampton Township after spending the morning chatting with visiting friends and relatives. He was 72.
To his family, he was simply known as John or Johnny. But to everyone else in his enormous circle of friends, he was “Chicken,” the cheeky childhood name given to him by classmates reflecting the family farm’s well-known poultry business in the 1950s and ‘60s that suited his rascally, larger-than-life personality.
“Chicken” was a person of contrasts and contradictions.
Jovial and gregarious, he also treasured privacy and solitude. One minute he could be dressed in a Santa suit (the long white beard was, of course, his own) entertaining families while they chose Christmas trees for sale at the family farm stand on Woodlane Road. The next, he’d disappear into the quiet magic of snowy woods where he could find refuge from civilization’s sounds and intrusions.
Usually spotted during the summer growing season in his favorite farm outfit – grimy overalls, bandana, and well-worn, holey T-shirt – few people would guess he had earned a photojournalism degree from Bowling Green State University. He was proud that some of his photographs were featured in a special exhibition at the Burlington County Library. He also wrote and illustrated a self-published children’s book.
While he was a staunch supporter of the military (the ceiling of his boyhood bedroom was festooned with model fighter planes he had meticulously glued and assembled himself), and an admirer of his late father’s World War II deployment in the Pacific aboard a destroyer escort, during the Vietnam War his conscience led him to serve his country in a different way. Through the Peace Corps, he lived with indigenous peoples in a remote Ecuadorian village in the Andes foothills, learning Spanish and a native dialect so he could teach them Western agricultural techniques. (A few years ago, he said he overheard the same rare dialect being spoken at the Columbus Farmers’ Market and was able to engage in a conversation with some very surprised Ecuadorians.) Yet, he also supported a number of military veterans’ organizations throughout his life and was a frequent hands-on volunteer restoring the U.S.S. Slater Destroyer Escort at its museum berth in Albany, N.Y. in a salute to his father’s Navy service.
As a young adventurer, he explored South America’s mountains, rivers and jungles; traveled through Europe and North Africa; lived for a time in Arizona where he camped in the desert and rode his motorcycle through the wilderness; climbed mountains in Spain, and hitchhiked through France, where a French truckdriver he snagged a ride with gave him a bag of fresh Normandy mussels. But, he was never more grounded than when he came home to Fernwood Springs Farm, harvesting crops, revitalizing the property’s Atlantic white cedar swamp with new seedlings, or plowing under a rye cover crop to ready a field for spring planting.
He relished life, but repeatedly cheated death. Resuscitated from drowning in the farm irrigation pond at age 4; coaxed back to consciousness after suffering a concussion in a skydiving accident in Ohio in his 20s; hospitalized for a crushed chest and collapsed lung when a dead tree he was harvesting for lumber on the farm fell on him; and survived a potential climbing accident in Spain when his axe and gear plummeted down the mountainside while he clung to a ledge. And those are just a few of the incidents we know about.
He planted trees, sunflowers, and milkweed for Monarch butterflies. He laughed, sometimes drank too much beer, and treasured his friends. As a kid, he slid down the corncob mountain in the corncrib with his sisters, loved his dog Snuffy, skated on the farm’s “Snake Pond,” and explored frozen streams under a sparkling jangle of forest icicles with his shaggy Newfoundland dog Tracy and his sister Carol. Teenage Chicken and a partner-in-crime once mistakenly lobbed tomatoes at what turned out to be the police chief’s car – then spent the next day sheepishly cleaning it up. He talked about his time playing on the same Rancocas Valley Regional High School football team as NFL great Franco Harris. He loved “Sea Hunt,” any old TV western, and New Year’s Eve when his Mom rang the farm bell at midnight. He liked to fire off the farm’s automatic blackbird gun to keep the blackbirds out of the corn – and annoy the neighbors. He learned and spoke the 19th century Lithuanian phrases his mother taught him from her parents when they emigrated here – but that no one speaks today.
At times admittedly irascible, he was also kind and caring. During his mother’s final years, he served as her caregiver so she could realize her wish to stay home on the farm as long as she could.
And, although he never married, it can be said that the farm was the love of his life. At the end, the farm – not a hospital – was where he wanted to be, spending his last days there surrounded by love and grace.
Geras Nakties, Johnny.
John was preceded in death by his parents, Carolyn and Charles Chitester. He is survived by his sisters Jeanne (Chitester) Stinger (the late William), of Palm Coast Fla. and Carol (Chitester) Saynisch (Stephen) of Steilacoom, Wash.; niece Megan Saynisch (Michael Nesi) of Brooklyn, N.Y. and nephew Geoffrey Saynisch of Steilacoom, Wash; grandnephew Luca and grandniece Poppy Nesi of Brooklyn, N.Y.; cousins Tom Widzenas (DeeDee) of Burlington Twp., Eve Stoklosa (Les) of Tonawanda, N.Y., and TeZa Lord (Carter) of Saint Augustine, Fla; and extended family and close friends too numerous and diverse to count.
A memorial/remembrance of John’s/Chicken’s life and times – featuring a gallery display of his photography and memorabilia – will be held Saturday, Oct. 8.,2022 from 2-4 p.m. at Perinchief Chapels, 438 High St, Mt Holly, NJ 08060 (1-609-267-0399) with a reception to follow from 5-7 p.m. at Crescent Shrine Hall, 700 Highland Drive Westampton, NJ 08060. (http://crescentshrine.org/contactinfodirections.html)
His ashes will be scattered privately on the farm at a later date.