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Curing the Flue

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

Artist, tugboat captain, chimney sweep,
gardener, extreme skier — it’s a full life

artful_on_roof.tif David Kehoe, a confessed adrenaline junky and the owner of Artful Chimney Service on Shelburne Road in Burlington, works an average of 50 hours a week at his craft, servicing chimneys for commercial clients.

David Kehoe gets high almost every day. For example, during part of his interview for this story, he was perched on top of Englesby House, the historic, three-story, president’s residence on the University of Vermont campus. At one point, he interrupted things to run a vacuum.

“I’m just pulling the remainder of a squirrel’s nest out of the chimney,” Kehoe said, speaking over the whirring sound of the vacuum in the background.

The image of a man balanced on a roof running a vacuum apparatus while talking on a cell phone could be chilling or thrilling, but to Kehoe, it’s just part of life.

Kehoe is the owner of Artful Chimney Service in Burlington, and UVM is one of his clients, as are Middlebury College, Wake Robin Retirement Community, and Vermont Gas Systems. “I might be the only chimney sweep in the state who doesn’t work on wood stoves or fireplaces,” he says with a grin. This isn’t the only area where he has bucked tradition.

It’s hard to pin him down on exactly when he became a chimney sweep. It was sometime after 1974, when he graduated from South Burlington High School and officially entered the family business — the tugboat business — in Brooklyn, N.Y.

“Family business” hardly begins to describe the legacy and importance of the Kehoe history when it comes to boating on the Great Lakes and the Erie Canal, as even a quick Google search will demonstrate. “Kehoes had always worked on boats — the merchant marine,” he says.

“We had seven tugs in New York Harbor and had barges. It was fun growing up working on the lake and canals. In fact,” he adds, “a book was written about my family called Low Bridges and High Water on the New York State Barge Canal. I was in the book; I rode with the writer, Charles O’Malley, all summer.” That summer was the last year commercial boats ran on the Erie Canal, he says.

Kehoe’s family’s boats also took jet fuel up the Hudson and down Lake Champlain to Port Kent into the 1980s. “Mobil had a couple of boats still running on the canal by 1983, but pretty much, my family started selling their boats,” he says. “They’re still running a small operation on Long Island Sound and running up the Connecticut River.”

artful_tina_1695corrected.tif David Kehoe’s wife, Tina, does the bookkeeping for Artful Chimney Service. They have known each other since grade school at Christ the King.

His father, George, was a “tugboat guy,” says Kehoe, “and my uncles, cousins, brothers — all were in the tugboat business. I had my captain’s license at 19 years of age because I was steering them when I was very, very young. We were known as canal brats.” He chuckles as he remembers vying for rides on certain boats — “the ones with good cooks,” he says. “The bad cooks didn’t last, because you had nothing else to look forward to.”

His grandfather, also in the business, had a farm in Leicester where he spent winters, “then summers, he’d be down in Brooklyn getting the boats going,” Kehoe says. “He eventually sold the farm and spent more time down in Valley Stream, Long Island. It got to be too much to run both places.”

It was during one of those winters in Leicester that Kehoe’s father met a Pittsford woman, Mary Carrigan, whom he would eventually marry. Kehoe, one of their six children, was born in Proctor, but the family moved to South Burlington when he was quite young.

The way the tugboat business worked, says Kehoe, was two weeks on and two weeks off — a schedule that led him eventually to become a chimney sweep. “I was cleaning the smokestacks on a couple of tugs in the harbor, and I said, ‘You know, I could do this and stay home instead of traveling down here every two weeks.”

He began by cleaning chimneys in Burlington on his two weeks off, then working his two weeks on the boats. He had been running boats up and down the Hudson River taking oil to Plattsburgh and St. Albans, until the mid-1980s, “when they pulled all the tanks off the lake. Then I went into the chimney sweep business, because we were in an energy crunch, Jimmy Carter was president, and Madeleine [Kunin] said we had to start driving smaller cars.”

Around 1985, wanting a change of scenery, Kehoe sold his chimney business and headed for the West Coast, where he cleaned the occasional chimney. Bored, he approached the San Diego Tug and Barge Co. about a job. “They had heard of my family in New York. I called this guy, told him my name and experience, and he said, ‘We’ll give you a job right away.’”

It was fun working in San Diego Bay, says Kehoe. “We used to move the Star of India a couple times a year; helped with a lot of the rebuilding of the Coronado Hotel, bringing in barges of fill.” A fond memory was his work during the America’s Cup race there in 1988. “I was on the Kiwi team that was against Dennis Connors,” he says, “on the barge that had a crane pulling the boat out every day.”

On a trip home for a visit, Kehoe encountered Tina Weishaar, an old friend from grade school. “She ended up coming out to visit me for a couple of weeks.”

As the friendship deepened, Kehoe grew tired of the crowded conditions out West. “I couldn’t believe how many people were out there; wherever you would go there was a line!” he exclaims. He returned to Vermont in 1988, and he and Tina were married in ’89.

He didn’t return to working on boats or chimneys, though. He followed another of his interests and became partners with his sister Deborah in a graphic design and advertising company — Kehoe & Kehoe. His love of art had been stirred by a teacher in grade school, and he had tried painting at one time. He went into the business hoping to do more art work, he says, “but my job was to go out and get more jobs.”

He lasted three years, and went back into the chimney business. “My sister still runs Kehoe & Kehoe,” he says, and I’m back where I like to be.”

artful_englesby_house_vls.tif The historic Englesby House is president’s residence at the University of Vermont, one of David Kehoe’s clients.

A morning person, Kehoe is up by 6 and out the door and on the road by 7. Although he has had as many as eight employees, things changed after 9/11, when his insurance rates doubled. “Workers’ comp — everything — went up so high, I ended up laying everybody off, and now I just work with myself and an office manager.” He quips that he’s trained just about everybody listed under chimney businesses in the phone book.

The office manager is Shirley Weishaar, his mother-in-law, who’s been with him over 16 years. “Every year, I let her go to Florida for two months. I really miss her when she’s gone.” Tina keeps the company books.

Although he’s called a chimney sweep, Kehoe doesn’t clean chimneys very often any more. Because he works solo, he largely limits his work to his four commercial clients. “I mostly do repairs and work on carbon monoxide scares,” he says.

“Doing residential, you’ve got to do so many stops, so many different schedules. Middlebury College just gives me 375 chimneys a year to look at.”

Seventy-five percent of Kehoe’s business comes from Vermont Gas, a client for 16 years. He’s there every morning to check in. “He puts in about 200 chimney liners a year for us,” says Scott Crocker, supervisor of field services at Vermont Gas. Crocker explains that when a new piece of equipment is installed or a fuel conversion is made, a chimney needs to be brought up to code, which may require a cleaning or a metal liner.

“He’s really good about emergency call-outs,” Crocker continues. “If we get a customer whose chimney is not venting, we’ll give him a call or page him rather than cutting the customer off. He might have to rip wall board off, but then he’ll fix it and rebrick it. He’s a mason of sorts who will also repoint the top of the chimney.”

Kehoe is certified by the Chimney Safety Institute of America for work with wood and gas, a combination he says few in Vermont have.

Each April around tax time, the phones go dead for about two weeks, he says. That gives him a chance to get his gardens going. “I love perennials, and landscaping. My back yard gives me a little peace and quiet.”

Things pick up in May, when Weishaar comes back from Florida, “and then we go full-force until April 15 the next year.

The quiet of gardening is balanced by the thrill of his other pastime — back-country skiing. “I love extreme skiing. I’m an adrenaline junky; I love it. Every January, I go to Utah, and I ski deep, deep powder, and I go to Mad River every weekend — I’m a shareholder there — and also work there as a mountain host. I take off whenever a snow day occurs. “It’s a great excuse not to go on someone’s roof.”

Kehoe goes to Utah, and Tina, who’s not a skier, heads to “some tropical place” when he comes back. This way, someone is home with Carrigan, their teenage son.

Kehoe admits that, at 53, he’s getting a little tired. He has relatives who continue to suggest he return to the boats. “I’d go back if I had to,” he confesses, “but I like being home. If I ever give up chimneys, I will probably go back into design work.

“I always dreamed about one day just painting, selling paintings; but right now, I’m on a 17-year stretch here, and I’ve wasted a lot of time doing other things. It feels like I’ve got a few more to do, then I’d like to get settled, have my own studio, and paint some of the experiences I’ve had ... and just enjoy the outdoors.” •

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