(This column was first published in severely reduced form in the September 22, 2003 issue of The Buffalo News.)
Several years after I began writing this column a young man from Lyndonville took over the News' role as "country" columnist. This was a serious challenge for him because John Sillick had to replace the charming columns of Joyce Swan of Westfield, just as I sought to fill the large shoes of my excellent predecessor, Dave Bigelow.
It was clear from the outset that John was up to the task. Like so many others in Western New York, each Sunday I turned to his Alps Road Journal even before I looked at the comics and acrostic -- and long before I turned to today's dismal headlines.
I called John to welcome him to the not always comfortable role of newspaper stringer and we've since become good friends. I didn't see him that often but we occasionally chatted on the telephone and I made an effort to visit his farm every summer.
In mid-August we spent the better part of a day together and it couldn't have been more pleasant.
When I arrived, John was opening the gate to allow his cattle to enter a new field. While we chatted, he scythed grass and weeds from under the fencerow of the new field to prevent leakage from his electric fence. He explained how the fence kept cows back: they simply lean on a normal fence and soon break it down. We laughed about the lesson city slickers learn when they foolishly relieve themselves on such charged wires.
Two of the calves hadn't followed their mothers to the new field so we tried, arms outstretched, to drive them through the gate. Everything went well until they were nearly in but, like the Bills' Travis Henry following Sam Gash, they suddenly turned and slipped between us.
"The heck with them," John said. "They'll soon join their moms and no self-respecting cow will return from a grassy field to one eaten down to the dirt." Indeed, later we found the calves reunited with their moms in the new field and John closed the gate.
A major delight of this visit was peach season and we set out for his orchard. Together we picked well over a bushel of lovely fruit and John insisted that I take it all. "Great for pies," he told me but those peaches never made the pie tin. Doris and I ate every one of them fresh, most absolutely perfect with vanilla ice cream.
We went on for lunch in Medina, along the way John waving greetings to his farm neighbors. It was clear that he was an established citizen in his community.
While eating, we long-time teachers talked about (what else?) schools and the problems of contemporary education. Often such discussions decline into gripe sessions but this one didn't. When I asked John to compare today's youngsters with, say, those of the 1970s, his reply was immediate: "They're much better today." He went on to tell me how his students had rejuvenated a Royalton-Hartland literary publication. "I like the way they take responsibility," he added.
I first submitted this column as a get well note to a dear friend and colleague seriously injured in a tractor accident. But now I have just learned that John has died. My wife and I are having great difficulty absorbing this terrible shock and our hearts go out to Kathleen and their children.
We will all miss this fine columnist, English teacher, farmer, woodworker, committed family man, novelist and all around good guy but I will especially miss our happy days together listening for wood thrushes and rose-breasted grosbeaks singing from John's woodlot.-- Gerry Rising