By Jeannette Hinkle, Melrose Free Press.
Johnny Strileckis was a creature of habit.
Every Saturday morning, the early bird would rise before the sun and walk down to the Dunkin’ Donuts on Main Street for a hot chocolate. They knew him there, just as the workers at Main Street Mobile and Petrone’s and Cappa’s Trackside Kitchen knew him – as a friendly and familiar face that would show up with a smile like clockwork.
Strileckis was on his way to Dunkin’ Donuts on the rainy and dark morning of Oct. 1 when he was struck and killed by a vehicle. He was 51 years old.
The stops on Strileckis’ schedule will now be quieter, a little less bright, says his longtime friend Carol Farr. Farr grew up with Strileckis and his five brothers – he’s been a fixture in her family’s life longer than she can remember. He’d come over for Christmas. He danced with her at her wedding.
“He caught the garter and my sister caught the bouquet,” Farr remembered. “He’s such a ham, he played up the whole crowd. When he got [mid-thigh], he pulled her dress down, turned around and went, ‘yeah!’ It was just Johnny.”
Farr has received several calls of condolence since his death, including one from Petrone’s owner Leo Armenis, who noticed when Strileckis didn’t show up for lunch.
“He’s going to be so missed,” Farr said.
‘His own legacy’
Farr’s daughter Jessica said Strileckis made every place he frequented his own, and that he was a reliable volunteer at many of the places he spent time.
He greeted customers while sorting hangers at Blue Bell Cleaners. He manned the copy machine at Lincoln Elementary School every Wednesday. He was the unofficial “assistant coach” of the women’s softball team that Farr manages.
“Every Tuesday and Thursday he’d be at my door 20 after five waiting to go to the game,” Farr said. “He was our biggest cheerleader.”
Jessica said Strileckis, who had Down syndrome, was not limited by his disability.
“That, in our eyes, is a challenge, but he’s made it a point to make his own legacy in Melrose as opposed to somebody else doing it for him,” Jessica said. “My idea of him is the man in Melrose, and in our lives, that you could always count on to show up.”
One of the boys
Strileckis learned the independence that allowed him to make his own legacy in Melrose from his family.
He lived with his brother Greg and his family on Malvern Street, in the same house they grew up in. Greg said that when Strileckis was born in 1965, doctors advised his mother to put the child in an institution.
“Back then, that’s what they did,” Greg said. “But my mother said, this is my child and I’m keeping him.”
As soon as he could walk, Strileckis went where his brothers did.
“Every day when we went up to the Common in the summer, he was there with us,” Greg said.
Rosemary McGrath taught Strileckis in the fledgling years of Melrose’s special education program. McGrath was the district’s second ever special education teacher, and she saw the obstacles that families like the Strileckises had to overcome to raise a child with special needs in that era.
“The moms and dads from that generation struggled in the dark,” McGrath said. “What impressed me most about my experience with John was how his family helped to shape who he became. He was a phenomenal person. Their family was a model for school and community inclusion long before it was in fashion.”
At a time when resources for special needs children were almost non-existent and many families felt compelled to place children with diagnoses like Down syndrome in warehouse-type institutions, Strileckis’ family made sure he was part of the community, McGrath said.
McGrath remembers a conversation with Strileckis’ father Tony after his wife Dottie died. When Tony asked McGrath what his options were, McGrath told him that Strileckis could live in a group home.
“He said, ‘I would never put him in a group home,’” McGrath remembered. “I thought to myself, I never should have worried. Tony’s mission, and probably the mission of the boys, was that John would remain in the community and home where he was raised. He never had to move.”
With the support of his family, Strileckis built a full life for himself. At a certain point, people stopped referring to him as Greg, Tony, Billy or Andy’s brother. They became his brothers.