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Restoring history one sign at a time

Restoring history one sign at a time

This retired Guilderland resident said repainting historical markers is a way for him to enjoy retirement
Restoring history one sign at a time
John Haluska repaints the sign in front of St. George's Church on North Ferry St. in the Stockade District on June 26, 2018.
Photographer: Marc Schultz

SCHENECTADY -- The weather Tuesday morning was perfect for Guilderland resident John Haluska as he began repainting the historical marker in front of St. George's Episcopal Church.

It was warm, sunny and there was just a slight breeze, which Haluska said was ideal for the work he was about to do.

“You can’t work in too big of a breeze,” said Haluska, who was dressed in blue jeans, a tye-dye shirt and a bucket hat. “Otherwise, you’ll paint yourself.”

At 73 years old, Haluska looks to fill his time with activities he wants to do. He’s retired after previously being a social studies teacher at John Jay High School and also a real estate appraiser for nearly 20 years.

Now, he spends his time reading, gardening, collecting bricks as a member of the International Brick Collectors Association, and repainting local historical markers.

And it’s something that he chooses to do for free.

“I don’t want to get paid,” Haluska said. “That would mean I’m beholden to somebody. I wouldn’t do it if I was paid.”

It’s part of a new philosophy Haluska is living by after reading the Feb. 4, 2015 review in USA Today of a book written by author Ken Blanchard and psychologist Morton Shaevitz called “Refire! Don’t Retire: Make the Rest of Your Life the Best of Your Life.”

It encourages people to not just retire from something, but to retire to go on and do other things.

So, Haluska said he did exactly that. He chose to refire.

It led to him becoming a senior care ombudsman for Catholic Charities of Schenectady, a member of the Historic U.S. Route 20 Historical Association, a member of the Guilderland Gardening Club and a host of other organizations.

Haluska shows a pure interest and enjoyment in his work.

In the middle of conversation, he’ll interrupt to share something about the work that he’s doing that excites him. Such as the fact that the sign in front of St. George’s can actually spin around on its pole, making it easier for him to paint. Usually, they are fixed onto the post.

"This is my bonus here, being able to spin this around,” Haluska said.

Haluska will also readily explain to you the type of paint he uses: midnight blue for the background, and sunburst yellow for the lettering, both made by Rust-Oleum.

If Haluska just so happens to get the yellow paint onto the background, he’s armed with Q-tips to dab over those areas.

There are a few reasons Haluska likes repainting the signs. Some of those reasons are because he is a fan of history, he gets to meet new people who walk by while he paints, and that the signs were being neglected.

The sign in front of St. George’s said it was put there by the state Education Department in 1932. This was during a time the state was actually responsible for erecting the signs and maintaining them.

That program went away in the 1970s, according to the New York State Museum’s website, and is now in the hands of local entities. There's also a private organization, the William G. Pomeroy Foundation, which helps secure funding for those looking to erect new markers or repair old ones.

Schenectady City Historian Chris Leonard said there is not a program in place within the city that does take care of the 39 markers in the city. He said, though, that he had planned to go around, take inventory of them and see what their condition was.

“I’m going to find them in better condition than expected,” Leonard said. “Which is good.”

In a letter sent to Mayor Gary McCarthy on June 4, Haluska asked if he could paint the markers in the city.

“I would like to come into Schenectady and repaint your historical markers as a way of saying thank you for what Schenectady offers me and my family,” Haluska wrote before writing what those things were. “Proctors, fine dining, museums, and as a brick collector, leftovers from demolished buildings.”

McCarthy responded to Haluska’s request just two days later on June 6. Haluska repeatedly said it took two days because there was at least a day needed for the letter to be delivered.

The answer to Haluska’s request was an easy one, McCarthy said. Someone offering to repaint historical markers on their own time and dime?

“It was an offer that’s too good to be true,” McCarthy said. “We jumped at it. And we’re off and running.”

When Haluska repainted the markers in Guilderland, he went about it a little differently.
He didn’t ask permission.

"I was not quite sure how things would work out with the powers that be," Haluska said.

His fear was that the town would tell him "No" and deprive him of something he wanted to do during his retirement.

So, when he was painting a marker in front of the Knower House in Altamont, a woman came out and took a picture of him, Haluska said. She sent the photo to the local newspaper, The Altamont Enterprise, and they did a story about him.

That's when town officials found out. And, admittedly, they were concerned.

"I think we were both, the town historian [Ann Wemple-Person] and I, were taken by surprise," Town Supervisor Peter Barber said. 'It caused momentary concern."

After discussing with Haluska his intentions, and making sure the colors he was using matched the other markers, everything was copacetic.

Barber said the town does regularly repaint the markers, but noted Haluska helped them a bit.

"What it really did, it accelerated what we were planning to do over the years anyway," Barber said.

After his experience in Guilderland, Haluska said he learned his lesson. So, he took a different approach in Schenectady, especially because he isn't a city resident.

"I sent a letter to Gary [McCarthy]," Haluska said. "He obviously though it was probably a pretty good idea."

One city employee who was appreciative of Haluska reaching out to McCarthy first was Leonard. Part of the reason was because he wanted to be sure Haluska was using the right colors.

"I wouldn't want to see him painting them purple and orange," Leonard said. "With this kind of thing, it's good he reached out to the mayor."

Leonard was still pleased to hear Haluska was willing to voluntarily work on the markers. He said it exemplifies the energy he has seen from other residents in the city.

"I love the fact that people in this city are so interested in our shared history that they are willing to do things like this," Leonard said. "At the same point, I want to make sure the energy people put forward be used in the right way. Contacting the office of the mayor or my office is a good thing to do if you're looking for some way to chip in."

As Haluska continues to paint the sign at St. George’s, he gives a weather update.

“The breeze is a little bit more than I’d like,” Haluska said.

But he keeps going, using a foam brush so he can get several words painted at one time.

“It reduces the mess,” Haluska said.

Haluska has done about four signs already in Schenectady. He has a list of a few others he will complete, including one at Vale Cemetery, the marker commemorating the site where Thomas Edison arrived in the city, and the one in front of City Hall.

Haluska said he will keep going because it is something he loves to do. It goes along with the a variation of a Billy Joel quote.

“If you don’t like what you’re doing, you’re wasting your time,” Haluska said. “And I’m not here to waste my time.”

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