His love of city shines through his commitment to community

Joe K on the N. Park Trail - courtesy of HdG Patch and Susquehanna Museum at the Lock HouseJoe Kochenderfer with his wife, Sara, moved to the area in 1959 for Joe’s new job at Aberdeen Proving Ground. Within the first year they ended up moving to Havre de Grace, choosing one of the first Poldi-Hirsch spec houses, which has been ‘home’ ever since.

Joe is a fine example of making a new city ‘home.’ Once settled in, he soon was involved with Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts, city council and city planning commission, and a Girls Softball Program (before it was available through Little League). In 2009 at the age of 75 and after 20 biking adventures with the Scouts, he fractured his pelvis on a long distance biking trip from Cumberland to D.C. on the C&O Canal, ending his biking adventures. He also has been very involved with the city’s recycling program, the Susquehanna Museum at the Lock House, and the Greenways programs.

The Joe “K” Trail (officially the North Park Trail) on the north end of town is a tribute to Joe’s steadfast commitment to an idea. In episode 107 we’ll share information on the trail. Although he says he’s a ‘glass half-empty’ kind of guy, he is most certainly a remarkable example of being an active, committed citizen. A fine example of the individual threads of our residents creating the beautiful tapestry of our city!

Here are some links you may enjoy perusing:

ENIAC computer

MONROMATICS calculating machines

PARTY LINES – phones







Joe “K” Kochenderfer

Born: May 8, 1934      interview: June 23, 2016

My wife and I are both from Central Pennsylvania, place called Lewistown. I went through the Army, got drafted during Korea. Came back, went to college, GI Bill, got my degree.

Thought I was going to be a school teacher. Tried it for a year – absolutely hated it. Got out of that, it was good for me and good for the students. My problem I was an only child and I thought people liked learning like I did. I discovered that wasn’t the case. I taught General Math and General Science teaching 8th graders.

Anyway, eventually I applied to the Feds. At some time, APG, which I’d never heard of frankly, sent me this letter and I said okay. We packed up and came down to see what Aberdeen Proving Ground was.    At that time the Ballistic Research Laboratory, which is now the Army Research Lab, interviewed with a group called Firing Tables Branch. Eventually they said you can come if you want to.

In August 1959 we came to the Proving Grounds and we lived on the Proving Grounds for about 4-5 months. There were lots of GIs and there was what was called Wherry Housing – a senator or congressman created. Nice places. Nice brick apartments. After about 5 months they told us, “All you civilians have 3 months to get out, we need all this for the military.” This was ’59-’60 when that turned over.

Well everybody was scuffling around and finally we found a small place in Aberdeen that we rented. We didn’t intend to stay there but we had to have a place to live. By that time we had one kid in 1958 and another on the way. So we looked around for houses.

I was the type that I didn’t want wells and I didn’t want septic tanks. So that kind of isolated you to municipalities, if you will. We looked around. We saw what was probably the first Poldi – Hirsch house on Tydings Road that she built as a spec  house. Long story short, we bought it in the fall of ’61, had the second kid in early ’62. It worked out fine. At that time it was all a young neighborhood.  We still live in the house, except for a few us we’ve turned – a number of people have died. In fact I suppose we’re close to being next on the list!

At that time there were no curbs and such on Tydings Road. In fact water and sewer had just been connected on Tydings Road apparently the year before we showed up.  That was an important feature for me. The fact that it was Havre de Grace I didn’t have any feelings one way or another. We’ve lived there ever since.

We had two more kids since then – four all together. Three live within 2 miles of us, one lives in Pittsburgh. Six grandchildren who have moved out on their own, all live within a mile of us, which is convenient, especially for grandma who loves the babysitting

Early on, say the first five or six years, I have to confess I really wasn’t paying any attention to anything except working, family, and keeping things going.  As time came along and the first thing that got me interested in the city was when the move about a new sewer plant and where to build it came along. There was a lot of controversy about where it ought to be built. The state said we need a sewer plant. It ended up out by the racetrack.

So I started attending council meetings. I was on the road a fair amount of time because we went to proving grounds and traveling  around the country doing things. But eventually, my own perspective (can’t speak for my wife), I kept going to these council meetings, being interested, and what have you.

In about 1977 a vacancy came up on the Planning Commission. I did not apply for the vacancy. I was approached at that time by Frank Hutchins, who was mayor, and a lady who lived down the street from me who has since died, Mary Frances Edward. She was on the commission. I asked, “What’s involved in all this?” She kind of laid it out for me. So I said, “Okay, I’ll try that.” So I got appointed and eventually got reappointed.

There was no zoning in Havre de Grace until 1982. So one of the goals of the Planning Commission at that time, and one of the goals still is the case, was to create a Comprehensive Plan. Zoning is kind of embedded in the Comprehensive Plan, which was a matter of trying to come up with a zoning ordinance and I can tell you was bitterly opposed by certain elements, particularly I will call the real estate elements.  Those folks are “it’s my land and I can do anything I want with it.” That’s why today you see what you consider to be incompatible uses next to compatible uses.

Nonetheless, we went on and got through it. It turned out that three city council people were no longer reelected a few months after the ordinance was passed.  Those that suffered were Jean Roberts, Bob Whitney and another man, (whose name escapes me) who chose not to run.

After the zoning ordinance was in for a year or so, the person who was chairman, a man named Bill Pless, wanted out. He recommended Henry Richardson, who owned Richardson’s Florist. Henry said he was too busy for chairman, but he would be vice-chair.  So for about 6-8 years I was the chairman. It was interesting in the early part of those days, every building permit that came through the city, whether a shed or a hotel, had to be signed by the planning commission chair. It’s not like that now.

Continuing on, in the mid-80s David Craig… then Gunther Hirsch was mayor. Gunther and I didn’t see eye to eye on a number of things. So Gunther didn’t reappoint me. Grumble, grumble, grumble. I’m still interested in all this. Fortunately about that same time I was able to retire from the Proving Grounds. After spending another year or so of attending city council meetings and being my nosy self, I decided to run for city council.

First time I ran was in 1990 with about 8-9 people on the ballot. I barely squeaked through with the third amount of votes. I was eventually defeated 1998. I ran again in 1999 and was defeated again. In 2000 I ran and won again. In 2002 I ran and got defeated. The public has its say!

Finally in 2007, I thought, “Gee, there’s almost no ‘old faces’”, so I ran again in 2007. But my hearing started to go bad. So I didn’t run again in 2009.My hearing went so bad. In council chambers it’s a disaster and on the phone it’s a complete disaster. I felt it wasn’t fair to my colleagues or to me. So I got out of that.

I kept my nose in things, and got involved with a number of commissions – water and sewer commission. Then in 2004 or so, I got appointed as the Trails Steward of the North Park Loop Trail by David Craig and have helped out in an unofficial position ever since.

(How do you feel about being involved in Havre de Grace politics.)

Oh, I like it. If that’s what you mean. (because…) Planning Commission I really liked it because here you’re trying to shape what Havre de Grace is and what it’s going to be. There’s not a whole lot you can do about… Anna Long used to say, “What is – is, and what will be is what you make it.” I enjoyed serving as a city council person, too.

I retired from the Proving Grounds in 1988. By virtue of having kids, I’m still involved in Boy Scouts, Cub Scouts, youth soccer. I ran a Girls Softball program for about 6-7 years before Little League had Girls Softball – this was Parks and Rec Softball.  I like to be involved in athletics. I loved riding bikes, you know, until recently gravity won and I fell and fractured my hip… rather my pelvis.

I have to tell you, I’m 82 and I’m definitely slowing down. Not because I want to… but I find that I… you have to take a nap now and then. I used to do 2 or 3 things a day, now maybe one is enough.

(In this excerpt Joe shares a description of the big basin that would have supported the canal in the late 1800s)

The upper end of the lot was a 35 acre big basin that went all the way up under the Route 40 bridge and part way up the North Park Trail and became a holding place for these canal boats. When a canal boat came down from Scranton full of coal for example, it may not leave right away. It may be a day or two before it was towed by a steam tugboat to Baltimore.

At the time I understand there were hotels up there, stores, probably houses of prostitution maybe.

(What about technology for you?)

Well the big thing to me was I came to Aberdeen Proving Ground. Of course, Aberdeen Proving Ground had the ENIAC, which was the first, argumentatively the first, electronic computer. I had never seen electronic computers in my life. Going to college it was something I never thought about, I guess. It was built by the people – a combination of the Moore School of Business (note: actually School of Electrical Engineering) and the Army – for the sole purpose of creating what was called firing tables – like I have a cannon here and I want to hit the courthouse in Bel Air. How do I do that.

(So it was like a calculating machine? You gave it numbers and it worked out…)

YES. And it took up a room – you know, the administration session in city hall – from … it took up a room that size all the way down. And then as time went on, we had the next level. Of course, the technology again, this was early on, everything was fed by punched cards. The output at that time was punched cards, which you then used on a printer. The first time in my, in our group, we got handheld adding machines, electronic – they were $450 bucks a piece or something like that.

For several years when we started out, we used monromatics. You know what those were… they went shshshshsh… well, you didn’t have to pull it (the handle).. but had to shshshshs… push the button… shshshsh. And that is big technology. Of course, now what kids have today in a laptop can do everything that that whole building of stuff did in those days! But I’m somewhat overwhelmed.


(Do you remember outhouses or anything like that when you were growing up?)

Well … we had what used to be an outhouse that we used for a tool house, a tool shed. My relatives that we visited in a place called Beaver Springs, which was 20 miles from there, they still had outhouses. They still had kerosene lights and a cook stove. Now that was up until 1950, I suppose.

(Do you remember your phone system?)

Well, we didn’t have a phone until I was in … about junior high school. We didn’t have a tv the whole time I lived at home, which was 1952 I left. Here (HdG) we had a party line. I lived on Tydings Road and there was a woman on Frances Street that was on our party line. In fact we were in the days of Westmore 9 whatever .. which became our 939 – not like Cecil Hill where he remembers 3 digits or something.

Go visit my uncle they had the strict party line in the country where you “crank, crank, crank, crank, crank.” The phone rang for everybody that was on your line. You recognized yours as two longs and a short or whatever, and then you picked up. Of course, you could listen to anybody.

My sister in law was a telephone operator where you plugged in… shshshshs….

(Even with the technology I think it’s still an amazing, and of course, it’s increasing faster and faster all the time. But there’s something about being grounded in the early days.)

Well, I’m… I’m an old geezer and surly guy. I think some of our difficulties nationally and world-wide, have been because we have instant communication… before… a lot of stuff happened we didn’t even know about! Was that good or bad? I don’t know. But it created a lot less stress, I think.

Now people want instant solutions to an instant problem. And … (sigh…) even at the city level, sometimes you got to think about the solutions.

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