Charles Edward Vatter was born April 18,1900 in Lancaster, PA, the second oldest of eight brothers and sisters who lived in a very dysfunctional, very German family. His alcoholic father was a struggling horse collar maker who didn’t have family as a priority.
Charlie was a good student, but only went to the 8th grade before dropping out to help provide for the family. His father took all his earnings except for 25 cents he let him keep.
At 15, he left home and moved into a rooming house where, for 5 cents extra a week, the landlady did his laundry.
He worked at Donovan’s’ Department Store in the first block of North Queen Street in Lancaster and later, worked as a window dresser and sign painter at Hager’s Department Store. At 19, he met Margaret Boyd, an 18-year-old clerk from Russelville in Southern Lancaster County and fell in love with her. Because they had no money, they got married in 1921 in Elkton, Maryland and spent their honeymoon at Margaret’s brother, Allen’s farm.
He was very athletic, involved in the YMCA, and was one of the first Boy Scouts in the country (his hand-made canteen can still be seen at the Boy Scout Museum in Valley Forge).
“Chet” (as some of his friends called him) was a loving, caring father who deeply loved his two daughters and one son, taking them for a walk every night before leaving for work at Stehli’s Silk Mills in Lancaster. He left Stehli and went to work for Prudential Insurance as a debt collector, where he collected a dime a week from people for their insurance payments. During these times, he was always buying things for his customers, who were suffering through the Great Depression. It was during this time that he took a class at Penn State and got the highest grades, even though he only had an 8th grad education.
He later worked for the Baltimore Life Insurance Company and managed the Reading Clothing Store at Orange and Queen Streets in Lancaster. It was during this time, he became involved in politics, claiming that the Republican Party “saved their lives” when they were going through their own hard times. He worked for the City of Lancaster as City Assessor and Building Inspector during times when Republican mayors were in control of City Hall and ended up finishing his career with the County Map Department.
Throughout his life, he was a well-known sign painter who completed work for many businesses, schools, and political rallies.
Charlie always had a passion and drive to achieve and prove himself and was a friend to everyone. His purpose was always to be a good father, husband, and grandfather to his 10 grandchildren, making them pieces of furniture or painting signs for their school projects.
So why do I begin a look at “ordinary leaders” with C. Edward Vatter? He was a man of character and leadership begins with character. He exhibited many of the character traits that leadership writers discuss: drive, collaboration, humanity, humility, integrity, temperance, justice, accountability, and courage. He put himself last in every situation. His daughter often talked about how he would give them the best parts of the food they ate and eat the scraps and leftovers. He was clear in his purpose and worked diligently to achieve it. He knew how to spend time at work and spend time with his family. He loved his children and grandchildren. He was faithful to his wife. He learned hard lessons as a youth that could have left him bitter, but overcame every obstacle and created a life that no one could have predicted.
But most importantly (for me), he was my grandfather and a huge influence on my life. When people ask me who my heroes in life are, it’s not the superstars or business names that make my list. My heroes and my guiding light have been C. Edward Vatter and Margaret Boyd Vatter. If I can live a life with their character, I have the foundation necessary to build on. Today’s (extra)Ordinary Leaders have similar stories.
Every year, their grandchildren dedicate a hanging flower basket in front of the former Hager’s Department Store to their grandparents, C. Edward and Margaret Boyd Vatter.