A 96-year-old service station will shut down in two weeks, a victim of changing times, aging bones and children finally listening to their parents -- and not going to work there.
The Russell family’s stewardship of Mattice’s Service Station will end Aug. 31, when Richard Russell Jr. departs for a job as a school monitor and turns the lights out at the Altamont Avenue garage where his father and uncle started spending time as boys in the 1940s.
It’s a bittersweet moment for father and son as multigenerational customers say goodbye and both men look back on their careers. But it’s time to go.
Richard Jr., the owner since 1995, has torn a bicep tendon, developed a hernia, and broken a toe in three places while working on cars there, but it was major back surgery in 2013 that finally set the wheels in motion, as he contemplated the possibility of life with a cane or wheelchair.
“I don't want this to happen, what do I do?” he recalls thinking.
The answer: look for a job that wasn’t so physically demanding, and put the garage up for sale.
“I wouldn’t say I was looking aggressively,” he said. But eventually he landed the job with the Greater Amsterdam School District, which begins Sept. 5. It’s a big change at age 57, but it will bring paid time off, more time with his wife, Susanne, and get him out from under cars.
The start date put a firm deadline on his exit from the garage.
The lot, the building and the permanently mounted equipment inside are for sale through CBRE at $299,000. The business name is included, too, if the buyer wants it.
“I would love to see someone come in and keep it just the way it is,” Richard Jr. said.
BEGUN IN 1921
Harmon Mattice opened his garage near the Schenectady-Rotterdam border in 1921 as the Midway Filling Station. He operated it until 1938, when an oncoming vehicle blew a tire and veered into the lane where Mattice and some friends were driving on Route 20 near Delanson. The head-on crash between two vehicles with steel interiors, no seatbelts and no airbags produced carnage, and mortally injured Mattice.
Mattice’s son-in-law Edward Zeh took over and renamed the garage Mattice’s. It was around this time that Richard Russell Sr. had his first brush with death, running into the street at age 2 and getting hit by a car. The crash put him in a full-body cast, and he’s told that his parents wheeled him into Mattice’s in a cart for some reason long forgotten.
That would have been his first exposure to the place that became his home -- not his second home, but his first home, said Richard Jr., who as a child had to go down to the garage if he wanted to see his dad.
Richard Sr. said at around the time he was 9, he and his older brother Thomas would stop by Mattice’s for soda -- Coke was 5 cents and the Coke machine was a red chest full of ice -- and began to help Zeh and learn from him.
“The smell of the grease and dust, I don't know, it never left me,” he said.
By the time Richard Sr. was 16, Zeh had developed a fondness for road trips and began leaving the teen in charge. Thomas and then Richard Sr. were drafted and served in the Army. When they got out, their mother tried hard to steer them away from the garage.
“My mother was so intent on me going to GE,” he said.
But General Electric was slashing its workforce in Schenectady at the time. The garage beckoned.
THE RUSSELL ERA
In 1962, Zeh had an Airstream travel trailer and a desire to use it. He transferred the business to the Russells as a loan, and held the paper on it until they paid him off.
The young men worked together well.
“My brother was a very good mechanic, even at a very young age,” Richard Sr. said. But he was less interested in the business side. Thomas left that to his brother.
“He’d say, aaaah, whatever you want.”
And so it went, six and a half days a week, with poor diets, missing their children’s childhoods, and working without masks or goggles.
“I’ve been burnt and twisted, acid in one eye. My one eye has 28 injuries, pieces of metal,” Richard Sr. recounted matter-of-factly. (During a cataract procedure, a surgeon counted the scars flying metal left on the surface of his eyeball.)
He also has mesothelioma from all the asbestos brakes he worked on.
Thomas was a bear of a man, known to pick up engines by hand. The very last thing he saw was probably a Pontiac V8 engine, one afternoon in 1989, Richard Sr. recalls.
“We had lunch and went back to work. All of a sudden I heard the tools fall down. I went around, he was as blue as your Daily Gazette blue,” he said, pointing at a business writer’s T-shirt. Paramedics happened to be nearby but couldn’t save the big mechanic sprawled on the floor amid an array of tools.
The pipe he liked to smoke still sits in a drawer in the old wooden desk stuffed in the attic.
After his brother’s heart attack, Richard Sr. bought out his widow’s share of Mattice’s and continued on his own.
His daughter Laura handled the books in the office a couple of summers. Daughter Sherri had no involvement in the business and Richard Jr. was only an intermittent presence as he went to college.
All this was fine with dad, who gave the same advice as his mom had dispensed: Do not make a career out of this garage.
“I didn't want him to,” Richard Sr. recalls. “It was tough, you can see with a tool like this bead breaker,” he said, hefting an antique hand-powered device to take tires off the rims that is still kicking around the shop, still greasy decades after its last use.
Thomas Russell gave the same counsel before his death.
“They were always telling me, ‘You don’t want to work here, go to school,’” Richard Jr. remembers.
Then his dad fell and ripped apart his shoulder.
His son told him: “‘While you’re getting your surgery I’ll come down and run the place.’ And he never left.”
Richard Jr. was like his dad, learned auto repair by watching and through training sessions here and there. During and after college he worked for a series of manufacturers in Amsterdam, where he still lives. But as they went bankrupt one by one, he gravitated toward Mattice’s just as his dad had a generation earlier.
Richard Sr. has survived three heart attacks, all of them right in the same garage where his brother died.
His daughters say that if Richard Jr. hadn’t taken over, Richard Sr. would have died there too.
Richard Sr. gave the business to his son and quit while he was still ahead, though he never really left, stopping by almost daily for coffee with customers, or to work on his own car, or to fix the church lawnmower, or to see if his son had the work schedule squared away and the bathroom clean.
Along the way, Richard Jr. realized he was missing his three kids’ childhoods, just as his dad had.
“When I took this place over in ’95, ’96, they hardly saw me,” he recalls. When he did get home, “I’d have the hardest time just keeping my eyes open.”
He cut his hours, closed on Saturdays and started getting home earlier.
And as those kids got older, he told them: Do not plan to work at Mattice’s.
The third generation was the charm.
END OF THE LINE
“None of our kids had any interest in it,” Richard Jr. says without a bit of regret.
Oldest daughter Meghan is a newspaper editor in Maryland. Middle child Deanna seems to have inherited the instinct -- she’s been known to work on her own car by choice or, as was the case once in Kenya, by necessity -- but not the interest. She became a wildlife biologist instead of a mechanic. Youngest child Richard Russell III is a meteorologist.
Richard Sr., now 81, is sad to see Mattice’s go but not sad that none of his or Thomas’ descendants are taking over.
“Everybody has their own niche,” he said.
He has two things he does almost every day: Visit the garage and visit his wife of 58 years, Barbara, in the Glendale Home.
Come Sept. 1 he’ll be left with just memories of the garage, but there are a lot of good recollections along with the painful ones.
A lifetime ago, he’d deliver newspapers to the Cermak family, and their son Marv became a lifelong customer of Mattice’s. At the time of his death, Marv had long since gotten rid of his Mustang, but Richard Jr. still had the ignition key, and it still hangs on the office wall today.
Then there’s the Ravis family that once lived just up the street, the patriarch of which would bring his 1941 Nash in for work. His granddaughter recently brought in her nearly new car after a rodent ate through the fuel line, and his great-grandson would drive down from Galway to get his 2011 Subaru serviced at Mattice’s.
It was nice, Richard Jr. said, to have those multigenerational relationships -- they kept the friendship going even as the original connections moved away or passed on.
“A lot of his customers that he knew are gone,” he said of his dad.
“We used to have a regular coffee klatch here. Sometimes I never even see them anymore.”