LAWRENCE — Chester "Chet" Sidell saw potential in Lawrence, at a time when not many outsiders were looking at the city as a place of great opportunity and growth.
Sidell, apparel manufacturer and real estate developer, died last week at the age of 77. He had staked out a business for himself and his family in Lawrence, and had amassed a network of partners — and friends — he cared deeply about.
Sidell was born in Dorchester and started his family in Framingham, but at the urging of a contractor in Lawrence, Sidell started KGR Inc., a womenswear company, named after his three children Kara, Gary and Randy.
When KGR launched more than 40 years ago, it was just Sidell and his business partner Manny Sheinfeld. The company grew to have multiple offices in Lawrence, New York City, and Dallas, and his clothing could be found in stores like Nordstroms and Talbots.
They also built a local retail operation that drew people from afar to buy his clothing direct.
He eventually took a space in the Pacific Mills, and began buying properties and fixing them up for business use.
In the 1980s and 1990s, a string of fires left Lawrence with an unfortunate reputation as the arson capital of the country. Sidell looked past that moniker and saw the city for what it was: a hub of opportunity.
"He was fixing up buildings and making investments when no one else was," said his son Gary Sidell. "He truly did make a difference."
And as his business grew, he began building a philanthropic mission, using his successes to bring others up as well.
Brenna Schneider, owner of Lawrence-based advanced apparel manufacturer 99Degrees, said Chet Sidell was a pivotal mentor to her professionally and personally.
"There aren't that many mentors in the country who know apparel manufacturing," said Schneider. "More than that, his mentorship was like, he could look at the hard stuff with me."
Schneider said when she first met Sidell, she hadn't yet started 99Degrees. She asked him for advice, and he warned her against starting a manufacturing company in this day and age, and advised her to just build a brand instead.
But six months after that rejection, she had started the company anyway, and he came to her space for an event.
"He saw me, came up to me and said, 'Kid you've got guts, I'll see you Monday," she recalled.
Ever since then, Sidell was committed to being at the table with Schneider, and helped her work through the toughest moments — occasionally celebrating a big win with her over steak dinners and Manhattans.
"His biggest message, was to trust my gut above everything else," she said. "He'd be like, the board wants you to prepare all this stuff, and that's important, but I want you to know what your gut feels first."
In teaching her that business acumen, Schneider said Sidell also enabled her to trust herself personally, too.
"He really coached me to trust my experiences," she said.
Sidell wasn't alone in his efforts. While Sidell was running KGR in the city, Bertram Paley bought the Everett and Stone Mills in the early 1980s.
"I think Chet and my dad (Bertram Paley) were cut from the same cloth," said Marianne Paley Nadel, who has owned Everett Mills since 2008 when she took over the operation from her father.
"Chet was particularly street smart, and could make something out of nothing," she said. "He made opportunity, by the way he hired people, by operating the KGR retail store that brought people from all over to Lawrence to have a great shopping experience. It was a real family business, the way mine was."
And, Nadel added, Sidell provided comfort to her after her own father passed away.
Now, she works alongside the next generation of Sidells.
Gary Sidell, who runs Bell Tower Management, his own real estate operation, has also jumped into his father's shoes becoming involved in community efforts in the city.
In 2017, the nonprofit Groundwork Lawrence honored Chet Sidell at its annual fundraiser.
"Chet bought in and saw Lawrence's potential when a lot of outsiders didn't, and he quietly supported, and not so quietly supported a lot of groups," Groundwork Lawrence's executive director Heather McMann said.
The list of Sidell's investments in the city is long: Groundwork Lawrence, Lawrence Community Works, Essex Art Center, Lawrence History Center, Lawrence Heritage State Park, North Canal Coalition, to name a few.
"Those places either started, or continue to be able to do work because of his investments," said McMann. "He was an amazing mentor and friend, always there to support you but also challenge you to think bigger and more strategically."
Randy Sidell, Chet Sidell's son, likened his father's teachings to those of the Buddha, or Dalai Lama.
"On every word, you'd take it all in," he said. "I don't know if he ever said this, but I think in another life he would have been a teacher."
Chet Sidell's grandson Matt Sidell was lucky enough to be privy to some of that wisdom too, as they went on a trip to look at colleges.
"He always just said, go with your gut," he said. "The way we felt when we walked around, he said it'd be my decision where I want to be for the next four years. That's going to help me decide where I want to go."