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Icon of downtown Marquette

The First Presbyterian Church Adult Sunday School class of 1910 is pictured. Charlie Pong is on the far right, while his cousin Pong Lee is on the far left. (Photo courtesy of Marquette Regional History Center)

MARQUETTE — Two years ago this month Marquette lost a gentleman who was beloved by downtown business owners and residents, window washer and man about town Phil Niemisto.

Few people, though, may realize Phil’s death was in many ways a replay of what occurred 70 years earlier, when another gentleman beloved by downtown business owners and residents also passed away.

Charlie Pong was born in China in 1880, and came to Marquette right before the turn of the century to join his cousin Pong Lee in the laundry business. A slight and shy man, he ended up spending almost half a century in that profession. His laundry was located at 204 W. Washington St., where the parking lot now sits across the street from the Post Office.

Charlie was loved in the greater downtown community. He always had a kind word and a great story, would help out anyone who he believed could use his help, and would donate money to any cause that needed it, especially if it involved the First Presbyterian Church, of which he was a member. Every Christmas, he would give gifts of Chinese tea and chopsticks to his friends around the city.

Like most business owners of that time, Charlie Pong worked long hours, six days a week. What little money he managed to save after helping out friends and neighbors would be sent back to family in China.

Therefore, after he became ill and passed away at Morgan Heights Sanitarium in early February of 1949, it’s not a surprise that he had less than 30 dollars to his name. Because he didn’t have the money for a burial plot or headstone, he was set to be laid to rest in the Potter’s Field at Park Cemetery.

That’s when his fellow downtown business owners stepped in.

According to a Mining Journal article shortly after Pong passed away, “Business men along Washington and Front Streets were indignant when they thought of Charlie Pong being consigned to a grave in Potter’s field.

“One merchant, who had the greatest respect and admiration for Mr. Pong as a good American citizen and an honorable man, circulated a paper for contributions. Never did such money come in more swiftly and generously. Said the merchant who initiated the collection — ‘I wish I could think I was as good a man as Charlie Pong. He is going to have a proper funeral and burial in Park Cemetery'”

And he did. Later that summer he was laid to rest under a pine tree in one of the northern sections of Park Cemetery.

Pong’s death hit residents hard, especially a young Mining Journal reporter named Manthei Howe. Several days after he passed away she wrote an essay on him, noting that she “Always came away with a new respect for his innate courtesy and personal self-discipline. More than one young person had enough sense to recognize the fine dignity of (Charlie), his appreciation of the kindliness he himself encountered, and a decent pride in retaining his individual sense of dignity. This reporter herself took pride & pleasure in knowing Charlie Pong, hoping he looked upon her as a friend.”

A sentiment, it must be noted, that many people repeated shortly after the death of Phil Niemisto 69 years later.

Aside from Howe, many other Marquette residents looked upon Charlie Pong as a friend. Some, apparently, had even retained memories of him long after his death. As noted, his grave lies underneath a pine tree in Park Cemetery, and over the decades had become dirtied by the pine pitch that had fallen on it.

Knowing Pong’s story, one sunny summer afternoon I cleaned the headstone off. When I came back to check it out a few days later, someone else had put plastic flowers next to the grave, I have no idea who; this was over 60 years after Pong had died. Yet the impression that he had left on Marquette was apparently so strong that I was not the only one honoring his memory.

Such was the legacy of Charlie Pong.

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