BY KELLY DE LA ROCHA
Before Jeanne Manchester even got close to the door at Tullock’s Service Station, Lauren Tullock-Cleworth had set up a folding chair by the drink cooler, so the longtime customer would have a place to rest.
“Hi Jeanne, here’s a chair for ya,” she called, smiling.
Manchester walked past the checkout counter with its tubs of Dubble Bubble, Tootsie Pops and Halls Cough Drops for sale, and gratefully sank down in the seat. As she waited for her 10-year-old Hyundai Accent to be inspected, she recalled the consistent kindness she’s encountered at the service station at the corner of Union and McClellan streets.
“I’ve always depended on them,” she said. “I live close, which makes it really nice, and they’re like family. Any time I have any little problem with my car, I stop right in here.”
After 43 years in business, the family-owned establishment will close in mid-July, making way for a new owner who will run it as a gas station and mini-mart.
As customers came and went on a recent Tuesday, the Tullocks spoke of a business that grew to be much more than a spot to get a tank of gas or a tune-up.
Owner Dick Tullock worked at service stations from a young age. He started out at the Gulf station once situated at the corner of Church Road and Sacandaga Road in Scotia, and for a short time, worked at Bill Dingman’s Gulf station at the corner of Fairview Avenue and Broadway in Bellevue. He met his wife, Kirsten, at Dingman’s in 1958, when she stopped in to get a tank of gas.
After four years of dating, they married in the Bellevue Reformed Church, right across the street from where Dingman’s had been.
Since then, the Tullocks have had two kids, one service station and countless customers, many of whom they consider family.
Tullock began operating the station on upper Union Street in the fall of 1971 and purchased it in 1983. It was built in the 1930s, and to his knowledge is the oldest operating full service station in the city.
The 74-year-old recalled the first Thanksgiving he was running the place, when three feet of snow fell.
“I was probably the only station in the city of Schenectady open,” he said. “We were filling gas cans left and right for snow blowers.”
He recalled changing belts on a doctor’s car that day, after the man had tried to drive through a snowbank.
As Tullock worked, the doctor coached someone by phone on how to deliver a baby.
Tullock rummaged around unsuccessfully for the sign that he used during the gas shortage in the early 1970s.
“It said, ‘Last car in line to be served today,’ ” his wife recounted. “We always found out that when it got to the pumps, it was never on the car we had put it on.”
The couple’s grown children, Lauren and R. Scott, have both worked and played at the station.
“I was kind of an explorer and found out that using the pipes in the back, you could climb up on the roof. It’s a nice roof,” Scott said with a grin.
Over the years, Lauren has had to deal customers’ misconceptions about a woman working in what has typically been viewed as a man’s field.
“Sometimes customers would ask if one of the guys could check the oil. I would tell them I could,” she said. “I also enjoyed educating, especially women, about their cars.”
In 2003, when Scott had a serious motorcycle accident, customers stepped up to support the family.
“They actually became prayer partners with us, and then that kind of grew, and when they needed prayer, they’d come and ask for prayer,” Kirsten recalled, through tears. “They transcended the customer barrier.”
The station has had many dedicated employees, some with more than 20 years of service, including Walt Fountain, who retired last year at age 86, after working there for 27 years.
“He was great. People miss him. When they catch him here, he gets hugs,” Kirsten said.
Although Tullock is eager to retire so he will have more time to relax and tend his tomato plants, it is clear that he and his entire family will miss the bustle of the busy corner and the smiling faces coming through the door.
Kirsten looked at the mementos that decorate the reception area — a wooden sign over the door to the garage that says, “Tullock’s Service Station,” a clock ringed in red neon that a customer brought to them from down South. They’ll take them all home when the place closes, but none of them will be displayed in the living room, she vowed.
Taking a break from putting air in a customer’s tires, Lauren spoke of her 17 years at the station with fondness — the bonding time she’s shared with her dad and the customers who have become friends.
“I will not miss shoveling snow or sweeping out the slush from the parking lot, but I tried to take care of this corner of Schenectady,” she said. “I took pride in keeping this a safe, clean place, where manners were used, kids were greeted when they walked through the door.”
“I’m just really proud of the service we’ve provided,” she continued, unable to hold back tears. “It kind of felt like maybe this is where God wanted me to be for a little while, helping out the family and taking care of the neighborhood.”