Searing memories of long-ago fire

By Karen Zautyk
Observer Correspondent 


Intriguing photograph, isn’t it?

Who is that man? Where was that fire? And when?

Along with the old photos for The Observer’s ‘Then & Now’ feature, we sometimes receive a stand-alone picture that’s worth a story in itself. This is one.

The scene is Kearny Ave. — 5 Kearny Ave., to be specific. The date was March 21, 1963. And the man is longtime Kearny mayor, Joseph M. Healey, who was in office at the time and who apparently often went to the scene of local fires to offer support.

With the help of the Kearny Fire Department and one of the survivors of this inferno, we were able to gather info on the blaze, which destroyed the original Thompson’s Fish & Chips shop — the very first fish-and-chips shop to open in a town that would eventually have many.

The flames also destroyed the home of the Ostrom family, who occupied a “tiny apartment” in the back of the one-story building.

When the fire broke out that Thursday afternoon, father Bob Ostrom, mother Doris (who owned the shop) and two of their three children, daughters Doreen, 17, and Jarlynn, 13, were in that apartment behind the shop. Son Robert, 8, was at school.

Jarlynn Ostrom is now Jarlynn Hyde, the owner of Mid-Realty, and she shared the long-ago but naturally still-vivid memories of that day. Jarlynn and Doreen were home sick with the mumps and were in bed when they “heard a loud noise, and Dad went running” toward the sound, Hyde recalled. As soon as he opened the door to the shop’s kitchen, which also served as the family kitchen, there was smoke. The girls fled the apartment, barefoot and wearing only their pajamas.

The KFD’s records show that the first alarm came in at 1:51 p.m. from a call box (remember them?) at Johnston and Kearny Aves. Two engines and a truck company were immediately dispatched. More equipment would arrive shortly afterwards.

Hyde said that her father “had grabbed fire extinguishers, but was overcome by smoke.”

“My mother and others dragged him out,” Hyde said. “We had to literally drag him out.” In addition to the smoke inhalation, Bob Ostrom had also suffered suffered a back injury.

But the rest of the family escaped unharmed. At least physically.

“We lost everything,” Hyde said. “The whole building was totally destroyed. It was total devastation.”

The fire was declared under control sometime before 3:42 p.m., but KFD crews, under the direction of Fire Chief John Sherlock and Assistant Chief John J. Kennedy, remained at the scene for about five hours.

Hyde said it was thought that the cause of the blaze was electrical, compounded by the kitchen oil used to fry the fish and chips.

In the aftermath, “neighbors brought us food and clothing,” a still-grateful Hyde said, recalling particularly one woman who arrived with clothing for Hyde and her pajama-clad sister.

Left homeless, the Ostroms rented a three-room apartment in the Gen. Kearny Apartments on Belgrove Drive.

In other hands, the fire might have meant the end of Thompson’s, but as those who recall the shop fondly know, it made a comeback.

In 1963, Thompson’s had already been in Kearny for 50 years. Hyde’s aunt had bought the business and the building from the original owner, and Hyde’s mother, Doris, later purchased it. She was not about to give up.

Mrs. Ostrom obtained a loan to rebuild from Nutley Savings. On Feb. 12, 1964 (Ash Wednesday, by the way) — less than a year after the disaster — Thompson’s reopened on the same site.

The new building also had two apartments, one on the second floor for the Ostroms and a rental unit in the back.

Thompson’s Fish & Chips continued to serve the Kearny community for nearly four more decades, closing its doors for good in August 2000.

The Ostoms’ younger son, Arthur — who was born after the fire — opened Thompson’s shops in Sea Bright and Belmar, but these have closed.

As for the undaunted, indefatigable Doris Ostrom, she finally retired from the business world in 2000. At age 75.

Noting her mom’s entrepreneurship, and success, in an era when a businesswoman was a rarity, Hyde said, “She was definitely a woman ahead of her time.”

(Editor’s note: For those of you wondering about that car in the photograph, it is a brand-new 1963 Chrysler Newport, which looks about half-a-block long.)

The Observer Staff