From Junior to Senior
Updated: Jun 17, 2022
A note of gratitude on Father’s Day
Unlike most people, my full name ends with a comma and the word “Junior.” I guess that makes me more aware of my old man than most. A lot of my identity was forged by the degree to which I take after him. Same blue eyes, same husky build, same vocal inflections. When you’re five years old, that’s pretty wonderful—you think, “I’m just like a grown up!” When you’re 15, maybe that’s not the most welcome comparison.
But I’m a few decades beyond awkward adolescence, and I have come to appreciate what my Dad has given me. More than simple genetic gifts, he has bestowed treasures upon me and my life. And on the occasion of Father’s Day, it’s a good time to count my blessings—and offer thanks.
Joseph Paul Sikoryak was born in the lower east side of Manhattan in 1933, second of four children in a family of immigrant shopkeepers. They lived together in a 200-square foot apartment in the back of their grocery store, clawfoot bathtub beneath the fold-up kitchen counter, rats scrabbling in the walls. Yet from these modest roots, he attended university, served in the Army, became an educator and succeeded in real estate. Along the way he married his wife Eleanor and raised three sons, of which I was the first born and namesake.
My earliest memories of Dad are as a milkman. He worked summers for his father-in-law, another grocer, leaving bottles of Raritan Valley Farms milk on neighbor’s steps before dawn. I can recall waking early to watch him pass our house, my face pressed against the metal screen door, the acrid taste of aluminum on my lips. That memory is only surpassed by the one Saturday afternoon he took me on his route for collections. I stood beside him in the cab, as he half sat on the driver’s stool of his Divco stepvan. His olive green jacket commanded the same respect as a soldier’s uniform. I cracked open the sliding door and let the wind blow my hair as we cruised from house to house.
Of course, I wanted to be a milkman when I grew up.
But Dad didn’t want me to waste my time—he explained to his preschooler that home delivery was on the way out, that soon there would be something called “convenience stores” where people could buy milk and bread quickly and cheaply. I resigned myself to finding another profession.
Dad was on his way to another job as well—as an elementary school teacher in our home town of Manville. He taught fifth grade at Camplain Road School, when kids had the same teacher for all subjects. I came along to watch him in action, and thrilled to see how he commanded the room, not just one or two kids but 20 at a time. They had to call him “Mr. Sikoryak”—a new experience for me, to think of my parent as an official figure of authority. He told jokes and everyone laughed, no one more than me.
He was ambitious and wanted to advance his career, so he trained as a “reading specialist.” This included private tutoring and evaluations of school curriculum. It led him to conduct research and experiments at home. Specifically, by teaching his son to read at the age of four. In kindergarten, when my classmates were learning their alphabet, I was bringing in library books for show and tell—to read to them.
I can’t overestimate the value of this gift. Being encouraged to read and rewarded to do so has paid dividends my whole life. He made me an autodidact, with the curiosity and dedication to teach myself. We made weekly trips to our tiny town library, where I devoured Dr. Seuss stories and aerospace books. Eventually we took monthly trips to the local flea market, where I bought back issues of Popular Science and Mad magazines to feed my interests.
But did I want to become a teacher? Only until I decided to become an astronaut. And that was okay, Dad said, but you had to be good at math. Uh oh.
But I deeply respected education, even as a kid. Teaching was the family business, and it not only paid the bills but offered other benefits. The highlight was joining Dad and his students on several class trips to the 1964-65 World’s Fair. We saw full-sized animatronic dinosaurs, working video-telephones and a Small World, after all. This blast of socio-economic optimism with the promise of a better future left a lasting impression. What made a bigger impression was my father’s creativity, and how he encouraged mine.
Living on a teacher’s salary meant living modestly. I wanted a toy truck but such gifts were rare between birthdays. Dad brought out his razor knife and a cardboard box. He carefully cut out four squares on three sides, and then trimmed the squares into circles. He pushed pins through the circles and fastened them to the box. Wielding a steel-barreled felt tip pen, filled with heady black ink, he drew headlights on the front and a logo on the sides… and I had a model of his milk truck. Watching him transform something so mundane into something wonderful before my very eyes might be the single greatest lesson I’d learned.
My brothers and I became makers of things, and Dad kept a steady supply of hand-me-down paper, pens and pencils for us to draw with. He taught me how to write “balloon letters” with his trusty magic marker. That probably jump-started my love of typography. More to the point, he wrote a treatise on the importance of the arts for child development—in balloon letters on 11x17” yellow oaktag board, bound with a brown shoelace. It was intended as a presentation for a PTA meeting. Each page was illustrated with kid’s drawings, magazine clippings and his own sketches. I pored over those pages endlessly, finding inspiration and examples at every turn. In that book, my father said that art mattered, and was necessary.
By the time I was 10 years old, that book had sealed the deal. I would be an artist.
It took a while to consciously realize that trajectory. Writing, drawing, building and creating was just something that we boys did at home while growing up. In retrospect, my path was undeniable. I drew for school art shows, wrote for the local newspaper, performed in plays and made my own movies. And my brothers Steve and Rob followed in similar, but individual paths. (Mom was also artistic, expressing herself in ceramics, crocheting and decorative cakes, so we came by our talents honestly.)
But it was Dad who gave us his pep talk, saying that we could do whatever we wanted, so long as we had the right attitude. He worked at the local factory for a few summers, and advised “You can push a broom at J-M if that’s what you want—just be the best damned sweeper there is.”
He jumped from elementary school to become a college professor. When that wasn’t enough for him, he began to dabble in real estate, buying and renting property. Eventually he owned and operated several apartment complexes—and wanted to share his success with his sons. He started with his “Number One”—but I was already headed to film school in California, and it was not to be.
And that’s something else I’m grateful for. Dad would have liked nothing better than to have his namesake follow him into business, where he enjoyed financial success and personal satisfaction. But he accepted that his boys wanted something else, something that he had encouraged at a formative age. He may have grumbled about how “my sons are all artists!” but he was always generous with us—offering his financial support and encouragement along the way, and taking pride in our accomplishments. Deep down, he’s a bit of an artist himself.
Today, I still look and sound a lot like Joe Sr. (He even taught me how to use four-letter words and four-syllable ones—all in the same sentence!) But I’m different enough and strong enough to feel like my own man—and happy to give credit where credit is due. Thanks for everything, Dad. I couldn’t be me—without you.
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