Vintage Rye: A Tale of Two Toms Who Answered the Call of Community Duty
Monday, 19 December 2011 11:53
By Karen T. Butler
Tom Hagele and Tom Nordman, collectively, worked on Purchase Street for nearly a century. They were volunteer Rye Firemen for as long a time, 50 years apiece. Either feat is difficult to achieve in today’s world, where job changes and commuting to work are more the norm. To accomplish both is outstanding. Better yet, to have lived their lives serving Rye with such humility is phenomenal.
They do not see themselves as “volunteers”, but rather firemen. They are proud to be part of Rye’s longtime tradition of volunteer fire companies, dating back to 1836 and made up primarily of men living and working in Rye. Tom Hagele was a Captain in the Poningoe Hook & Ladder Company #1, affectionately known as the “Hooks”. Tom Nordman was in the Poningoe Engine & Hose Company #1, which he considered to be the “working company”. For both of them being a fireman was a longstanding commitment of service to their community. Tom H. and Tom N., and there are others, represent a unique combination of men who served Rye in their careers and with their volunteerism. That is not to make them saints, for that might make them blush. In a wink of an eye they both can quickly create some good-natured mischief if need be. All in all they are good solid citizens who love Rye with their whole heart and soul.
The police-fire radio chatter is continuously heard in the background as Tom Hagele sits in his easy chair and chats. For most of his adult life he has listened to Rye’s news of fires or accidents around the clock, always ready to jump into action. Today retired, he reminisces, no longer able to meet the call of duty. The same is true for his longtime business partner and friend, Tom Nordman, who is also his backyard neighbor.
In the prime of their working years, the fire whistle blew at the Locust Avenue Firehouse; the resounding blasts telegraphing the location of the fire. The fire truck engines were quickly revved up. They pulled out of the station onto Locust and made a wide left-hand swing up Purchase. Everyone stopped and watched. The numerous volunteer firemen gainfully employed on Purchase Street dashed from their businesses, one by one jumping onto the fire truck as it slowly moved up the street. It was a spectacle to behold these everyday heroes. One of the Toms is among the contingency, never both. Someone had to mind the shop, Rye Liquor Store, at 31 Purchase Street.
Max Friese opened Rye Liquor Store in the late 1930s in the Bubbico Building, two doors up from the Smoke Shop. A few years later he moved the business down the street to 41 Purchase, where it remained until it closed.
Tom Hagele returned from World War II in 1943, having served in Greenland and the Artic. He immediately went to work at the A&P on Purchase Street for $51 a week, working the night shift. A friendly guy by nature, he was a hard worker too. In 1951, Friese asked him to come to work for him. Hagele did, starting at $56 a week. He never left.
One of nine, Hagele grew up on Elm Place, where he recalls the 1939 hurricane floodwaters were worse than today. “You opened up the back door to let the water in, and you then opened the front door to let the water out.” His father immigrated to America in 1917 from Stuttgart, Germany, on the same ship as Theodore Fremd, also from Stuttgart. They met during the voyage, became friends, and settled in Rye. Fremd was destined to become one of Rye’s renowned mayors.
Tom Nordman came to work for Rye Liquor Store a few years after serving in the Korean War. He worked part time at first, and a few years later full time. Prior to that he had worked as a Station Master. Nordman, who grew up in Harrison, married Max Friese’s niece, Mary Conover. Friese was happy to have family involved in the business. When he passed away, the business was sold to the store manager, Bill Martin. In 1962, Martin sold the business to the two Toms.
As they explained it, Tom N., taking care of logistics, was President. As Vice President, Tom H. was the “front man”, getting to know all the customers with his winning way. When Tom H. couldn’t remember a customer’s name he was not beyond greeting him or her, as the case may be, enthusiastically with “Hello Mrs. ....” voicing inaudible sounds and muffling a name of some sort. Most of the time he got away with it.
Both Toms thought the world of Max Friese, who taught them early on: “What goes on in the store is business, and nobody’s business.” To their credit, they live by that adage today. Their mentor, Max Friese, taught them well.
Friese told “the boys” that wine would some day be a big thing. That was not the case in the 1940s and ’50s, when mostly liquor was sold. In 1950, the right side of the store and half way up the left was whiskey. By the end of their tenure, the opposite was true. They can still rattle off the names of the different brands of whiskey with ease: Old Forester, Ballantine, Early Times, Barton Premium, Schenley…. Walter Winchell, famed gossip columnist and radio commentator, once wrote, “Los Angeles is the friskiest; Rye (New York) is the whiskeyist.” Guess he knew what he was talking about. By the 1950s vodka was coming into vogue. Fast-forward to the 1990s and wine filled the entire left side of the store and up the center aisle.
Left over from bargaining to end Prohibition, the liquor industry was highly regulated. Alcoholic beverages could not be advertised in newspapers or on the radio. Prices could not be put in the windows. The main form of advertising was very attractive professionally designed storefront windows created by the liquor distributors. Wine was only displayed once a year — Mother’s Day! The windows in Rye Liquor Store were always an exquisite sight to behold.
On a daily basis the Rye Police walked Tom H. to the bank to make the store’s deposit. “Hi, Mr. Hagele”, one of his daughter’s friends said as he walked by. “Hi Susie Q, how are you?” he responded in his smiling way. Most folks he passed he knew by name; never failing to greet them. He hurried back to the store to be ready for the evening’s business. Meanwhile Tom N. was busy creating in-store displays and placing the orders to keep the store well stocked. Purchase Street was a quiet place in the evenings, because most stores closed at 6. Rye Liquor was one of the few that remained open in the evenings, staying open six days a week until 10.
Service was the name of the game. Rye Liquor Store delivered to people’s homes; generally leaving a customer’s liquor in the kitchen. Tom Hagele’s twin brother Jimmy delivered for them. He was warned that one house on his route had a pet snake and instructed to leave the liquor in the kitchen, going into the house by way of the garage. Jimmy opened the garage and there was a huge python. He did a quick about-face; slammed down the garage door; high-tailed it out of there; and never delivered the liquor.
Both Toms chuckled as they recalled one frequent customer always announcing herself as she entered the store boisterously proclaiming: “The service here is worse than in Lord & Taylor’s!” Anyone knowing these two men knows that was never the case.
Over time it became more and more challenging for a small liquor store to survive. They were slowly being squeezed out by larger businesses. Tom H. was the first to retire. Tom Nordman and his son Tommy continued the business, eventually closing the doors in 1998.
The Rye Liquor Store, a fond memory for many although unheard of by some, served Rye well for 65 years with two wonderful guys, Tom Hagele and Tom Nordman, at its helm for most of its existence. We herald them for serving Rye so unselfishly for so long as business owners and as Rye Volunteer Firemen.