Chester was born on May 9, 1923 in the coal-mining village of Butler, Pennsylvania. He graduated from Butler High School in 1941 and was a boxer in the Golden Gloves program. After working in steel mills for two years, he enlisted in the US Army, where he served as a heavy machine-gunner until the end of the war.
During his service he participated in the liberation of the concentration camp at Dachau. His personal account of his war experience is recorded in the Veterans History Project of the American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress. His first published writing, a fictionalized impression of concentration camps, was published in 1946 in UCLA’s Daily Bruin, under the editorship of Frank Mankiewicz. Seven of his photographs of the Dachau Camp and several post-liberation musical programs were contributed to the U.S. Holocaust Museum.
Following the war, Chester attended UCLA, then earned his undergraduate degree at UC Berkeley and his master’s degree at San Francisco State University. He worked for 10 years as Chief X-Ray Technician at Alta Bates Hospital in Berkeley, then joined the faculty in the English Department at Saint Mary’s College in Moraga, where he retired in 1997 as a full Professor. While serving as an X-Ray Technician, Chester testified at the state level against the then-common practice of giving additional radiation to African Americans and sought to end the practice.
While teaching at Saint Mary’s, he lived on a sheep ranch in Bodega before building a home near Occidental. In Occidental, he became a garlic farmer and for more than 40 years grew over 60 varieties of garlic from 20 different countries. He is known worldwide for his books on garlic and his efforts in popularizing garlic farming.
He was also a prolific author of adult and young adult novels, stories and memoirs, publishing 28 books from 1967 to 2016. His books have been translated into French, German, Dutch and Chinese. Following publication of his first novel in 1967, About Us, he wrote well-received young adult novels. Better than Laughter, a Margaret K. McElderry book, was an early problem novel. Anne Fine said of An American Ghost that it should never go out of print. It was made as an ABC Weekend Special television program, Cougar! in 1984. Gideon, published in 1982, offered an adolescent hero acting as a resistance fighter in the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II. His first book, About Us, a semi-autobiographical novel recounting life growing up in the Depression era as a Jew in the coal country of western Pennsylvania and his later collection of short stories, Symptoms of Terminal Passion, depicted his recurring themes of Jewish identity, the natural world, and the effects of war, and was published by El León Literary Arts in Berkeley.
Chester received grants and awards from many organizations, including the National Endowment for the Arts. He appeared numerous times on PBS, including in an episode of California Heartland, and on NPR, most recently discussing his memoir about his experiences with the artists who produced Salt of the Earth, the only blacklisted American film in history. He conducted memoir writing workshops at Santa Rosa Junior College. For several years, he assisted fifth graders at the Salmon Creek School in Occidental in learning how to write, edit and illustrate their own anthology of stories. Clove, a 2007 documentary portrait, by Andrea Young, and winner of the Grand Festival Award/Education at the Berkeley Video Film Festival, depicts his garlic farming technique.
Chester deeply touched the lives of many through his writing, teaching and mentoring, love of garlic and animals and his friendships. He will be greatly missed.
Special thanks go to the assisted living staff at Rohnert Park Retirement Community and to Heartland Hospice of Santa Rosa for their beautiful, loving care for Chester during his final two years.