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History time: Buff & Buff machinist meets the Brink's bandits

Posted by Matt Rocheleau  December 6, 2010 09:00 AM

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(Courtesy: Peter O'Brien)

Robert K. Casavant in his Wrentham home in Dec. 2008.

Part of an occasional series highlighting a piece of neighborhood history.

Bob Casavant's working life started as a machinist at Buff & Buff Manufacturing Company and ended as a prize-winning antique automobile restoration expert. Along the way he met two of the 20th century's most notorious bandits when he souped-up their cars.

Robert K. Casavant was born in 1922 at Richford, Vt. Moving to JP, he attended Boston Trade School, graduating from the popular automotive course in 1938. Later, he learned the machine shop skills that got him his first job rebuilding carburetors for a firm in Brookline. In 1941, at 18, he married Helen Boudreau of Back Bay and the first of their two children was born a year later.

Bob joined Buff & Buff (B&B) in JP as a machinist in 1941. His pay, less than a dollar an hour, saw an unheard of raise of 15 cents an hour when his production of parts for surveying instruments soon exceeded all other machinists' outputs. Bob's foreman and mentor at B&B was Carl Wiedemann of Beech Street, Roslindale. Carl trained him so well that he was able to quickly increase his production and earn the pay raise.

Bob worked at B&B until 1942, leaving for a welder's job paying a dollar an hour at the Boston Navy Yard. With a young family already started, he had no choice but to leave for the higher paying war work.

Following his Army service from 1943 – 1945, Bob found work at Franklin Field Motors, in Dorchester. His outstanding mechanical skills kept him very busy, often traveling far from home to get a broken down crane or commercial fishing boat back in business. However, his conscientious work ethic clashed with the owner's desire to maximize the hours spent on a job. Bob didn't like that so he left to work on his own.

Between 1950-1955, Bob was a partner at Fred's Auto Repair on Washington Street, near the Egleston Square “T” Station. At Fred's, Bob got to know two of the notorious Brinks robbers; Joe McGinnis who owned the nearby Egleston Liquor Store at Washington and Seaver Streets and Joe "Specky" O'Keefe who later testified against the other eight Brinks robbers.

McGinnis wanted to increase the speed of his '51 Mercury and Bob, with his considerable automotive skills, was able to do that. Soon, O'Keefe wanted his Pontiac beefed-up and Bob obliged him as well. In an amusing testament to his ability to get more power out of standard car engines, Bob recalls that shortly after the Brinks heist on January 17, 1950, a law enforcement team was staking out the parking lot at Fred's shop.

They were undoubtedly watching McGinnis and O'Keefe who were suspects in the Brink's robbery. Bob decided to take McGinnis's Mercury out for a "test drive" and the cops, recognizing McGinnis’s car, immediately gave chase. Within three blocks, the powerfully modified Mercury easily outran the stakeout car.

In the 1960s Bob went to work as a mechanic on heavy equipment, ships, and cranes for the Atlantic Equipment Company of Hyde Park. He later joined Dino Buick in Stoughton, and finished his working years as a truck mechanic for the US Postal Service, retiring in 1985.

In 1960 Bob started restoring antique automobiles and for the next 40 years he enjoyed the hobby, restoring some beautiful prize winning antique cars. While no longer able to do the work, Bob still enjoys reading about younger men who preserve the grand old automobiles of another era.

Peter O'Brien is a member of the Jamaica Plain Historical Society.

To read more about the rich history of Jamaica Plain, visit the Jamaica Plain Historical Society website at: http://www.jphs.org/.

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