A name known to many

Lifelong Juneau resident, former Douglas grocery store owner shares story of his large family, history

Posted: Sunday, January 17, 2010

"Do you want to know about the historian, who has lived in Juneau all his life and seen many changes? Do you want to see a man of a large family, raising a large family in Juneau? Or do you want to see the man who had a grocery store in Douglas? Work with me."

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Kim Andree / Juneau Empire
Kim Andree / Juneau Empire

- Bob Thibodeau, 87, lifelong Juneau resident

Regardless of how you know him or where you see him, one cannot ignore Bob Thibodeau's name.

The oldest Thibodeau left in the local clan, this "almost-88-year-old" has been known for his voice of dissension in the educational and political communities, and as a former grocery store owner, a senior advocate and swimming pool regular.

Not to mention, he has a huge family. Thibodeau keeps up with his 12 children, 30 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren through phone calls, the occasional family reunion and weekly e-mails. Just don't expect to find him on Facebook.

"In growing old, it's important to keep the lines of communication open," he said. "I don't own a car. I walk wherever I go or take the bus. So, whoever I meet, I will say, 'Hello.' Hopefully they will say hello back to me. ... Conversation is very important with an older person."

Thibodeau's weekly e-mails are comical, touching and thorough, filled with everything from family updates and musings on the weather to city happenings and sports highlights.

"It's not just a few words. It's not a Facebook," Thibodeau said of his letters. "I try to put down some of the thoughts that I have, observations I've made."

In his Jan. 7, 2009, letter, he writes:

"I am glad that our Christmas season is over. There is just too much stress. ... With the computer we did not send as many letters. And there were those notes which began, 'I regret to inform you that your friend has passed on.' ... And there were some of my high school classmates that I did not hear from. So, I just wait and wonder. ... But life does goes on."

Thibodeau has proved it.

GROCERY BUSINESS

In his many years in Juneau, Bob Thibodeau worked as a salesman and grocery store owner. He owned Shop Rite Market, a convenience store in Douglas, for about 21 years.

Back when he was a salesman, Thibodeau said he called on only 14 stores in the Juneau-Douglas community, which had a population of about 14,000.

"All the stores were small, and they offered to the public two important things, credit and delivery," Thibodeau said.

Thibodeau's father, Joe, started his grocery store in 1935 with John Hermle Sr. Then, in 1940, he opened Thibodeau's Market on Willoughby Avenue.

"He called his store 'cash and carry,' which meant he didn't offer credit or delivery," Thibodeau said of his father. "But that was not true. He offered credit and delivery. ... He offered credit. It's not like it is today, where everybody has plastic."

Not to mention, small business owners back then felt like every customer was a personal friend, Thibodeau said.

"When you extended credit, it was like bringing that person, that family, into a very personal relationship," he said. "And when that customer relationship broke or stopped, it was like a death in the family."

VOICE OF DISSENT

Thibodeau also was heavily involved in Juneau public education system.

"Being the product of a private school, I knew its limitations," Thibodeau said.

"It's very hard to get good teachers. It's very hard to offer the children the educational programs like music and cultural activities that a public school system could offer."

Thibodeau said he ran for public office - School Board, state senator, Assembly, you name it - about 20 times during the years he had his store and when his children were in school.

"I was just a running fool, or a fool running, whichever you want to call it," Thibodeau said. "I never got elected, which was the best thing that ever happened to me."

Thibodeau refers to himself as the voice of dissent during that time.

"I was the one who objected to, who suggested," he said. "And the teachers in the public school system always knew my presence."

In addition to having worked about 15 years as an unpaid lobbist for seniors with AARP, Thibodeau has been chairman on the Juneau Commission on Aging for about five years.

"We're concerned about problems and issues that seniors are in," he said. "We like to expand the bus service and we fought very hard to keep the longevity bonus."

RETIREMENT

Thibodeau said he has enjoyed his 24 years of retirement so far.

"In fact, I've been retired more than I've been working," he said. "But my life right now is taking a day at a time, not looking to the future, can't remember the past."

But Thibodeau has a few things to look forward to. Thibodeau and his wife, Aurelia, will celebrate their 65th wedding anniversary in 2012, which will coincide with the week-long family reunion the family holds every few years.

There were 65 people at the last Thibodeau family reunion in Sun River, Ore. Thibodeau looks forward to seeing many of his grandkids face-to-face.

"They rented three big homes," Thibodeau said of the reunion. "They had the boys in one home, the girls in another home. Those who were married get bedrooms, and those who aren't married, they sleep wherever they can."

• Contact Neighbors editor Kim Andree at kim.andree@juneauempire.com



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