After decades inside Belchertown State School, Paul & Elizabeth’s worker builds a life outside

Last modified: Monday, May 05, 2014
NORTHAMPTON — After 35 years, Paul & Elizabeth’s restaurant in Thornes Marketplace is a fixture in the downtown.

Inside the natural food restaurant stands another fixture who has been there for nearly as long: Bruce Kickery, a developmentally disabled Northampton man who has worked there since Paul and Elizabeth Sustick hired him to mop floors in 1985.

“He dragged me in here,” Kickery, now 71, said with a sly grin at Paul Sustick, seated across a table from him in the restaurant.

Sustick said he hired Kickery, who at the time had been recently released from the former Belchertown State School, to clean the restaurant. In the years that followed, Kickery learned to do food preparation and get the restaurant ready for opening.

Along the way, Kickery has become like a member of the family. Decades ago, he babysat the youngest Sustick kids at the restaurant, pushing their strollers around when they napped. When their oldest son and head chef Nathan Sustick got married in 2005, Kickery was a groomsman.

“I kind of grew up with Bruce,” Nathan Sustick said.

Paul and Elizabeth Sustick moved to Northampton from Boston to open their vegetarian and seafood restaurant in December 1978.

Paul Sustick had previously worked in the mental health field before getting into the restaurant business, he said, and in 1985 a friend in that line of work “asked if I wanted to meet someone who wanted to work.”

Kickery was mopping the floors of Thornes Marketplace at the time and had just been released from the Belchertown State School, which was in the early stages of shutting down after allegations of inhumane conditions and poor treatment of the disabled residents.

The two men met and hit it off. Kickery started cleaning and washing dishes part time at the restaurant.

“He learned all about what goes on in the restaurant,” Sustick said. Over the years, Kickery also took on new jobs like chopping vegetables to prepare for cooking later in the day. Pretty soon, he was keeping track of everything, Sustick said.

“He always knows what’s going on, who’s coming in, when they’re late,” Sustick said on a recent morning at the restaurant with its blond wood floors and tables and expansive windows, while a waitress prepared the dining room and cooks chopped food for lunch. He sat with Nathan Sustick and Kickery at the wooden dining table nearest the door. The table is Kickery’s usual spot, they said, whether he is peeling ginger or socializing, which he loves to do.

“He’s one of our best employees. He shows up every day and always calls if he’s going to be late.”

At that, Kickery, in a crisp, white shirt under his plaid jacket, interjected that he must be on time because his boss will “chew my ear off if I’m late.” With his hands resting on the table, he smiled so wide his weathered cheeks forced his eyes into a squint.

Bruce Kickery was born in 1942, the 11th out of 20 children in his family in Pittsfield. While he spent many of his years at the Belchertown State School until the mid-1980s, he stayed in contact with some of his family. Kickery said he still occasionally visits siblings in Pittsfield, though Sustick said he has outlived most of them.

“We always joke that Kickerys take up a whole page in the phone book there,” Sustick said.

Sustick estimated that Kickery spent 30 years in the state school, an experience Kickery doesn’t like to talk about, as he illustrated with silence and downcast eyes while sitting across the table.

“Bruce knows all the words to all the songs from the 1950s,” Sustick said, because a radio was one of the features of his room at the state school. “He grew up in an environment where that’s all there was.”

He is a big Elvis Presley fan, so the Susticks hired an Elvis impersonator to perform at his 70th birthday party at the Northampton Brewery last year.

Kickery now lives in a group home on Perkins Avenue in Northampton. He gets a ride downtown about five or six days a week with his long-time friend and helper, Kathryn Service. He loves being downtown, he said, and is a well-known figure there.

“I walk all over,” he said. “I like to get out and see everybody.”

When he isn’t at Paul & Elizabeth’s for his 8 a.m.-to-noon shift three days a week, Kickery can be found hanging out at Rao’s Coffee in Thornes Marketplace and at the Northampton Brewery. “He has a regular seat at the bar there,” Paul Sustick said.

He doesn’t drink, but in his younger days he liked to visit downtown bars to see local bands play. Now he likes to spend nights at the movies or going to Joe’s Café for spaghetti and meatballs, Sustick said.

He also likes to travel with Service, who has taken him on trips to Nevada, South Dakota, North Carolina and Florida. “It’s been an incredible journey, being his friend,” Service, of Northampton, said in a phone interview.

She is a nurse practitioner who works in the Northampton office for the Department for Developmental Services. She worked at the Belchertown State School in the 1970s, but only met Kickery after he was released and working at Paul and Elizabeth’s.

They struck up a friendship at a former gym in Thornes Marketplace, where Kickery was being treated for a shoulder injury. When she learned he was paying for a taxi to drive him to work, she started bringing him downtown on her way to work most mornings.

“He’s family. He’s like the brother I never had. He gave me away when I got married,” Service said. “We’re like siblings. We argue just like anyone else. But he’s easy to be with.”

Service was a founding board member of a national organization, the Developmental Disabilities Nurses Association, and she brings Kickery with her to the annual national conference, held in a different part of the country every year.

“Everybody knows him there. Everybody asks for him,” she said. While she attends presentations, he hangs out with the vendors, and at night, he has fun. “We have a dance and he’ll be out on the floor dancing his head off. He dances with all the nurses,” she said.

At Paul & Elizabeth’s, Kickery told his boss that he and Service would be headed to the conference this weekend in Florida.

“You’ve got this guy to work for me,” he added, gesturing to Nathan Sustick, who grinned back at him.

When he is at home, Kickery said he tends his parakeet and plants. He loves animals and said he used to have a dog sitting and walking business, The Canine Butler, years ago.

He was also an accomplished knitter when he was younger. He said a friend taught him the skill and used to make hats, scarves and slippers for anyone who wanted one.

“You would always see him knitting at Rao’s,” Sustick said.

Lately, Kickery’s dexterity has been limited by carpal tunnel syndrome, caused by pressure on a nerve in the wrist, usually brought on by repetitive motion.

“Too much chopping,” Kickery said, getting laughs from both Susticks.

He still likes to help out as he can, including shucking peas, picking herbs, peeling ginger root and making sure the tables are set. “I do it all,” he said.

Another job he has at the restaurant is welcoming new staff. Since 1985, Kickery has carried around a camera and had his photograph taken with every new employee. Their picture goes in “the book,” where he writes their names, birthdays and phone numbers for future reference.

“I do it to keep the memory of people I want to remember,” he said, looking at the latest version of the book with Paul Sustick. One page features a picture of Kickery in a Santa Claus suit at a staff Christmas party.

Nathan Sustick said his family bought Kickery a digital camera some years ago, but he prefers his old one that still uses film.

Kickery said the best part of working at the restaurant is the “nice people” and he plans to keep working at Paul and Elizabeth’s for a long time to come. “I think I’m too young to retire,” he said.

Rebecca Everett can be reached at reverett@gazettenet.com.