Rhona Charbonneau: Never Too Busy to Give Back to her Community
June 2, 2017
by Laurie Jasper
The Hudson community lost an iconic member on May 17, with the death of 89-year-old Rhona Charbonneau. In addition to being the wife of the late Claude Charbonneau and mother to five children, Rhona was a business owner who was also involved in federal, state, county and local levels of government through many years of service.
The Charbonneaus chose to move to Hudson to raise their family. Claude ran his trucking business with Rhona’s assistance. That’s how Rhona’s long-time friend and business partner Alida Weergang met Rhona. Weergang legally emigrated from the Netherlands and found work in the offices of Merrifield Casket Company. Claude’s business leased trucks to Merrifield Casket Company, and Rhona and Alida actually met on the phone. When Alida became homesick, Rhona, a lifelong traveler, joined Alida on her visit back to the Netherlands, “Rhona loved to travel. I think Holland was her favorite place to visit,” said Alida.
While there, they visited Weergang’s aunt who owned a beauty salon at which Alida had apprenticed. Rhona decided they would open a salon when they returned home. Their first salon, Continental Crimping, opened in 1964 at the corner of Lowell Road and Central Street, which would later become Hetzer’s Bike Shop. They would open a second and then third shop in Nashua. Inspired by European salons, theirs featured innovative treatments and service, designated bridal and men’s sections, and even a special children’s area. They stayed current with the trends while offering excellent customer service. In 1973, Rhona and Alida opened Continental Academie of Hair Design in Hudson, moving the business to its current location on Derry Street in 1981. In 1981, they opened a second Continental Academie in Manchester.
To most, this busy lifestyle would be more than enough, yet it wasn’t for Rhona. She wanted to give back to her town and state. And boy, did she ever. In fact, it simply is not possible to list all of Rhona’s professional, governmental and local affiliations. It was in 1977 that Rhona decided to run for selectman. Longtime employee and friend Sylvia Donah recalled: “Back then, it was a man’s world. She was running the business. But, her philosophy was if there was something she wanted to do, she went for it and kept trying.” Donah assisted Rhona’s first campaign by helping to distribute literature in town … in mailboxes. “We didn’t realize you weren’t supposed to do that. We heard about it right away,” shared Donah with a laugh.
Rhona lost that election, but she did not give up. Rhona won election to the New Hampshire House of Representatives in 1982, serving one two-year term. She then served six years as a state senator, from 1984-1990, and was Senate vice president during her 1989-1990 term. “Politics was Rhona’s forte,” stated Weergang. National and state candidates sought Rhona out for advice and endorsement. Once you had Rhona’s approval, you also had a tireless supporter in addition to a fantastic political sign location. She hosted many politicians at her beloved brick home on Old Derry Road, which she and Claude purchased in 1980.
“I attended many political events at her home over the years. It was said the road to the White House came through Hudson. She has been a long-time friend and mentor, and was the reason I got into politics,” said Terry Stewart Bouchard, who served with Rhona on the Hudson Board of Selectmen in the 1990s.
After leaving the Senate, Rhona became the New Hampshire Republican State Committee chairman. “As chair, Rhona really believed in the ‘big tent theory.’ You didn’t have to agree on every issue to be a good Republican. So, the GOP was very successful under Rhona’s leadership,” said Shawn Jasper, speaker of the NH House of Representatives, who also served with Rhona on the Hudson Board of Selectmen and knew her for many years. “Rhona worked very hard on behalf of the taxpayers of the Hudson community and as a county commissioner to make sure we had a responsible, conservative county budget,” said Jasper.
Some of Rhona’s many appointments were as national director of the Small Business Administration at the federal level; member of the NH Housing Finance Authority; and NH Charitable Trust director. From 1997-2007, she was elected Hillsborough County commissioner, including chairman from 2001to 2007. Organizations she belonged to included the NH Federation of Republican Women, Hudson Lion’s Club, and Hudson Chamber of Commerce.
Her local political involvement was equally impressive: Hudson Board of Selectmen, 1994-2003; Budget Committee; Library Trustee; and Planning Board. In 2001, while a member of the Hudson Board of Selectmen, Rhona was instrumental in organizing the town’s Benson Park Committee. As chairman, working with the state and NH Department of Transportation, she led the committee to devise a written plan and vision for what is now a beautiful park. As one of the original members, this reporter recalls how determined Rhona was to see that neglected portion of land become a benefit to the town. The town took formal ownership of the land in January 2009.
Some may recall that in May 2009, Rhona was critically injured in a car accident in Nashua. “That accident took a lot out of her, but it didn’t stop her,” said Weergang. Despite the loss of one eye and most of the vision in the other, Rhona stayed apprised on current events and local happenings. “My mother didn’t let the accident stop her, and, in typical Rhona fashion, she lived another eight full years,” said her youngest child, Alida Charbonneau. Two years ago, Rhona attended her granddaughter’s wedding in Ireland in May and then traveled to Holland in August. In addition to her children, Rhona leaves eight grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. Of all her titles and accolades, Rhona always said her favorite was “Great Grammie Rhona.”
“Hudson meant everything to her,” said Weergang. Upon completion of the gazebo at Library Park, it was Rhona who went to Maine to have a special trolley weathervane designed, to pay tribute to the trolley stop on the park property. “She truly does live on in Hudson,” said her daughter Alida Charbonneau.
On Sunday, June 11, from noon to 2 p.m., the family will host a celebration of Rhona’s life at Continental Academie, 102 Derry St., Hudson. All are welcome to attend.