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Lunenburg cabbie marks 55th year of service

by Robert Hirtle

Fred Romkey has driven a taxi for 57 years, 55 of them in the Town of Lunenburg.
 A lot has changed in the picturesque seaside town of Lunenburg over the past 55 years, from the collapse of its offshore fishery to its evolution into a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

 But through all the changes, one thing has remained constant. You could always depend on Fred Romkey for a ride.

 Now 83 years young, the affable octogenarian first started driving a taxi in his home community of Blue Rocks way back in 1953.

 "I went fishing with my father when I was 12 years old. Got up at two o'clock in the morning and went out and hauled herring nets, me and my brother," he recalls. "We rowed from the Ovens with a trawl dory load of herring in to National Sea [Products], then we used to row home."

 Mr. Romkey's full-time fishing career ended after he contracted tuberculosis in 1949. He moved to Toronto in 1951, but after nine months in the Ontario capital he suffered a recurrence of the disease and ended up returning home.

 "When I got back from the sanatorium, Ivan Knickle had a car driving taxi, so that's how I got started, with Ivan in Blue Rocks," he recalls. "I was only about two months with him driving, then he went to work for Powers [Brothers]. What money I made with the car, he let that go, and I just paid the balance off."

 By 1955, Mr. Romkey decided that there wasn't enough business in Blue Rocks, so he obtained a licence to operate his taxi in Lunenburg, and, equipped with a 1953 Pontiac, embarked on a memorable career that would end up lasting five and a half decades, and counting.

 Among the highlights for Lunenburg's longest-serving taxi driver was his first brand-new car, a Chevrolet Impala which Mr. Romkey purchased in 1958 with a little help from lady luck.

  "I won the Irish Sweepstakes," he recalls. "I got $1,350 out of that and that's how I got the down payment."

 He bought his second new car in 1960, and continued to buy a new vehicle each fall for the next 32 years, all Chevrolets.

 "I wouldn't buy a '59 because it had those big fins and everybody said don't buy one of them because they flip over too easy," he laughs, adding that after that first Pontiac, he never drove anything else other than Chevrolets, and he continues to drive one today.

 "I never had any trouble with them. I always got good service out of them."

 Having a reliable vehicle was of utmost importance to Mr. Romkey, whose major client in those early years was National Sea Products, now High Liner Foods, which engaged him to transport crew members of its then formidable fishing fleet to various ports throughout the Maritimes.

 "I used to drive over 100,000 miles a year," he recalls. "I used to get up in the morning and go out to the fish plant, leave there at nine o'clock, drive to Shippagan, New Brunswick, and turn around and come back again. And I made as high as three and four trips a day to the airport. Then there were North Sydney and Canso. It was all fishermen that I used to drive."

 And that was back in the days when there were no 100-series highways or 110-km/h speed limits.

 Remarkably, in all those years of driving, Mr. Romkey was only ticketed for speeding on four occasions, and was involved in just one accident, albeit that one crash was a serious one.

 The mishap occurred in 1959 on Highway 3 between Lunenburg and Mahone Bay when his car was struck head-on by another driver during a snowstorm.

 "I was pretty well gone that time," he says. "I said to the doctor, 'How much blood did I have in me,' and he said, 'You had nothing into you.' What brought me around, I don't know."

 With the decline of the fishery in the late 1980s and early 1990s came the disbanding of the High Liner fleet and an end to Mr. Romkey's marathon runs.

 From then on, he concentrated primarily on paying passengers in town, and he could often be found between fares parked at the King Street taxi stand, discussing events of the day with anyone who happened to drop by.

 That rapport with the public helped carry him through the ensuing years, and made him a popular choice for those wishing to engage his services.

 Throughout the years, Mr. Romkey lived by the motto that what happened in his cab stayed in his cab, and he managed to avoid trouble by declining to take fares who had been drinking heavily and staying away from the bootlegging business that was popular, and profitable, back in his early days of driving.

  "I never had much trouble with them.The ones that had too much, I just wouldn't bother with, because I didn't have to [and] I never bought a bottle of liquor in my life," he laughs.

 This month marks the beginning of Mr. Romkey's 56th year of ferrying passengers around Lunenburg and beyond, an achievement that has made him somewhat of an icon in the community.

 But will this be his last?

 "I was going to quit this year but I feel so good I couldn't," he says. "But when September comes and my insurance comes due, I don't know. I'll be of two minds."

posted on 01/11/11
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