It would take an Ernest Hemingway to describe the first fifty years in the life of Dick Schick. It would take a Robert Mitchum to fill that role in a movie.
Born on October 20, 1927, Dick had filled his life with adventures well before he moved to our neighborhood, and those adventures carried him around the world. It was our good fortune that he chose to settle here and contribute so profoundly to our community.
Raised on a dairy farm near Flint, Michigan with his younger brother Gordon, Dick admired his steadfast father and resilient mother. His parents tolerated the relentless flow of rowdy pets and school chums who tagged after the two headstrong boys, and managed to steer them safely through the bold (and occasionally foolhardy) escapades that they grew famous for. Mischief, not mayhem, was their goal; they avoided felonies and serious bodily harm. But a daring spirit and pleasure in taking risks guided his path, and gave him plenty of opportunities to turn around a bad situation with a witty observation or clever story.
It was clear to everyone who knew him that farm life was not for Dick, and academics were not challenging enough. Fresh out of high school at the close of WW II, he yearned to “see the world” and applied to the US Merchant Marine Academy in San Mateo, California.
After completing his BS in Marine Engineering at Kings' Point, Long Island, he filled a variety of assignments aboard ships around the globe. His stories about service life were bawdy and entertaining. Some of them were sobering, and included his exposure to the physical injury, emotional pain and untimely death of shipmates.
When he moved on to civilian life as a field engineer, he chose jobs that combined his technical training with his strong desire to work with people. He happily covered huge territories as a factory parts salesman, and eagerly rolled up his sleeves when called in to assess and repair the huge dairy machinery that became his specialty. Again, in this environment, there were dramatic incidents; injury or death could occur when operating heavy stamping and cutting equipment, and it was often Dick's role to step in and handle the emergency. The strong character he had developed in the Merchant Marines served him well in these tense and frightening situations.
By the early 1970's, Dick was past forty, and interested in starting his own business. He moved to the Middle Village area and rented a building on Dry Harbor Road that served as his tool shop. Past contacts from his old sales jobs had provided enough leads for him to develop a solid customer base among the manufacturers and packagers in Queens, Long Island and New Jersey.
Dick easily developed close friends in the neighborhood, and his local travels brought him into regular contact with people who respected his abilities and his integrity. His services were needed and appreciated here. He soon could rely upon steady work and a comfortable income; Manhattan and the surrounding area provided many rich options for entertainment. This alone could be seen as the culmination of all his earlier hopes and desires, and Dick was certain that this would be his permanent home. As he settled contentedly into our peaceful little neighborhood, you would assume that “The Richard Schick Story” would wind down, leaving us with the image of a man ready to grow comfortable and complacent as he entered middle age.
That was the Dick Schick who came to be known in our community two decades ago. He quickly became a “regular” at local stores and diners. He established lasting friendships that allowed him to grow deep roots and truly embrace life in our community. Every day the serene landscape of Juniper Valley Park greeted him as he entered his shop in the morning and as he locked up for the night.
A dozen years ago, my husband Peter and I met Dick for the first time. There was a fatherly affection in his attitude, which was both unexpected and delightful. It became very natural to spend time talking with him when we met on the street or at the diner, and we soon fell into a comfortable habit of sharing regular stories of our various jobs and activities. And as we grew closer to him, we realized how many other people had the same “habit.” Dick was warm, supportive, insightful and experienced in so many issues where the rest of us needed suggestions and encouragement.
Whether in business or personal relations, he always seemed to have the perfect story to illustrate his point, and the perfect wise advice to take away with us. The next time we'd talk, he'd be sincerely interested in knowing how everything had panned out, and we felt that he truly invested his hopes in seeing us do right and do well.
This is the part of Dick's life that has touched so many of us: his unconditional support and encouragement of every person who walked into his life. He seemed to be a fountain of compassion in bad times. People also sought him out to share good times, because Dick was a man who embraced opportunities to enjoy himself and share that joy with others. He started every day with a buttered roll and coffee, usually on the stoop of his shop, where morning commuters might stop to chat briefly before heading off to work. By the end of the day, he may have had a dozen more visitors, made several quick stops around the neighborhood, shared a souvlaki lunch in Astoria and headed to Manhattan for a fine dinner and a Broadway show. He may have spent last weekend helping a friend paint their garage, or attending a conference in Seattle. His business reputation spread so far that he frequently caught planes to Russia or South America, where he would serve as a consultant and expert in resolving various technical crises.
Wherever he went, it was clear that his relationships with people were central to his experience. If we weren't able to come along, we were sure to hear tales of the trip: details of the mechanical challenges, the food, the accommodations, and especially the people. He loved to quote his distant friends and relive those personal experiences as he shared photos and other mementos from his adventures. Dick was a resident of Maspeth, but truly a citizen of the world, with lasting ties to people on every continent.
He savored the good experiences of life, and rode out the bad ones. And no matter how many stories he had ready to share, he always took time to listen first, to focus on the needs of others before his own. And even though he already had a rich storehouse of experience and knowledge, Dick's mind was always eager to absorb more; he read novels, explored New York's theatre district with a passion, and eagerly sought to keep abreast of current events around the world. He completed at least two crossword puzzles every day, tenaciously tracking down definitions of unfamiliar words. He loved to debate issues, but not merely to champion his own opinion; he was eager to hear and consider the ideas that shaped the opinions of others.
This love of learning and desire to grow in knowledge and understanding were very special attributes of Dick Schick that drew many people to him.
He participated in the social aspects of our community in a way that touched and enriched the lives of many others. But Dick continued to expand his commitment in ways that very few of us contemplate.
In 1990, at the age of 62, he set out on a fresh adventure, and entered a new phase of his life that defines him most clearly in many of our memories. It began with our community's first significant venture into handling “the graffiti problem.”
Bob Holden and members of the Juniper Park Civic Association had decided to take on a new project: they would be cleaning and painting a trestle bridge on Eliot Avenue, a few blocks from Dick's apartment. I spoke with Dick about it, and we agreed that this would be a new and interesting “entertainment” for an otherwise quiet Saturday. Dick participated with gusto, making frequent trips to buy or borrow the odd bit of equipment that was needed as the refuse was gathered, the surfaces were cleaned and the fresh coats of paint were applied. The cluster of volunteers came and went all day, and by dusk they numbered only half a dozen, including one enthusiastic and diligent new recruit. That was the day that Dick's life took an unexpected turn, and he became a vital contributor to the future of our community.
Most of us know about Dick's commitment to graffiti control. He worked closely with Police Officer Keith Casey to learn and apply effective means of eradicating the problem. He volunteered to supervise cleanup crews, some of them manned by perpetrators who had been sentenced to community service. He attended those hearings and spent countless hours educating and recruiting his neighbors, scouting for tags and conducting his own personal crusade. His car trunk was usually full of paint and brushes so that even on the way to a business appointment, he would take a moment to cover graffiti “within 24 hours.” In that, he practiced what he preached and set a powerful example for the rest of us.
The enthusiasm Dick had was infectious. In the same way that he found people eager to join him for dinner at a new restaurant, he'd recruit them to help him clean up, paint over and “adopt” sections of the neighborhood, effectively stopping the spread of graffiti within our community. Like Tom Sawyer, he gave us a reason to pick up a brush and pitch in, perhaps for the first time in our lives. And few people were able to say “no” when Dick raised the challenge.
As President of the JPCA from 1994 – 1998, Dick brought enthusiasm and dedication to all aspects of the job. He still volunteered for the grittier work, such as mowing the grass in the park between scheduled maintenance visits. And for every quote or photograph that documented his activities, there were scores of actions that he chose to take quietly and anonymously, simply because he saw a need and answered the call. We all knew that whatever he expected of others, he freely contributed tenfold of his own time, effort and resources.
There is a physical legacy that Dick Schick left for us, and that is all around us: the beautiful park where we can enjoy restful, pleasurable moments, as well as our many storefronts, gates and walls – which we are now determined to keeping graffiti-free. He has taught us well, and has renewed our pride and commitment to our community. This proprietary attitude is a precious resource, and has become a hallmark of our neighborhood.
Dick was relentless in his efforts to do the work, motivate cooperative efforts, and inspire us to even greater goals. Whenever I would bring him one of my personal problems, he'd hear me out, share his own experience, and step back. Often, that accomplished wonders, but if I still had any complaints about work, home or life in general, his basic retort would always be “So what are you going to DO about it?”
He never allowed himself or others to lose sight of their own personal responsibility – and power – to make positive change in their lives and in the world. He firmly believed that anything worth achieving could be done if we gave it our best effort and availed ourselves of the many resources around us. And the life he shared with us adds proof to his convictions.
If it appears that I have painted him as larger than life, it is because he was. As we can say of few people, our community is a better place because he has lived here. We have lost a great friend and a great community leader. But he has left us with a powerful example, warm memories, and vital insights that will always be ours, to treasure and to pass along. There can be no greater tribute to such a man than to see that his good works and good will remain a part of our neighborhood as we move forward.