Charlie Auer, who helped run the iconic Charlie's Boathouse on Burlington's northern waterfront, has died, friends and family members said Wednesday. He was 89.
He and his sister, Christine Auer Hebert, were the longtime proprietors of the business, also known as the Auer Family Boathouse. The siblings' father, Charlie Sr., built the red clapboard barn-like building in 1928 and ran the place for decades. The Auer kids spent summers there. When their mom passed away in the early '90s, Charlie Jr. and Christine took the place on.
The seasonal bait shop, snack bar and boat rental store has been a welcoming presence for decades. Locals and summer people alike favor it as a beloved, if musty, place to pick up minnows, night crawlers, or a $5 Charlieburger. Many have followed the arrows on a hand-painted "Candy to Soda" sign on a tree along the nearby Burlington Bike Path to the boathouse. Charlie's is just south of the path's bridge over the Winooski River, and has offered cyclists a shady respite on hot summer days.
Those who stopped in were likely to meet Charlie, Christine or both.
"I took my mother down there to see him; she was visiting from California," said Trish O'Kane of Burlington, who kept her kayak at the boathouse. "She was exactly his age. And they just sat there, and talked to each other and laughed, and told stories. He was a wonderful storyteller and a super-kind, funny, sweet man."
Charlie was "always happy" and had a perpetual glint in his eye, O'Kane said. She appreciated that the Auer family allowed people to drop by and watch the sunsets over the lake, and that the waterfront parcel didn't "get McMansioned."
Megan Humphrey, an Old North End resident who had befriended Charlie, said that he had been reared by parents who didn't have a lot, but were generous nonetheless — a lesson he took to heart. "He told the story over and over about how his mother always had a pot of soup on the stove," she recalled. Whoever was around would eat. "If they showed up, you fed people."
The boathouse accumulated more fans than riches. The Auer family weathered times when the lake level dropped, making it difficult to launch boats. Floods were a challenge, too. Neighbors and friends helped the Auers recover from high waters in 2011. Over the years, the unforgiving lake reclaimed three of the property's original six acres. In 2016, local artists sold paintings and donated the proceeds to help keep the boathouse afloat.
And then came the pandemic. Despite it, Charlie's kept going, said Humphrey, who was last there in September. The place was open. Some out-of-towners were experiencing the boathouse for the first time. Charlie, who wore a mask, played piano and people danced, she said.
On Thursday, the Auer family announced Charlie's death on the "Auer Family 'Charlies' Boathouse" page.
"We thank you for your tremendous support and loving outreach to us, as it is truly being felt and helping us through this extremely painful time," the post reads. "It is fresh and sudden and we are all numb with grief right now."
No funeral services are yet planned because of COVID-19, but family members hope to have services and a celebration of his life in the coming summer.