On Dec. 1, Jim Riskovsky tuned 75. This year marks another milestone for the Madison mechanic whose auto shop turns 60. That’s right, he’s been operating his own auto mechanic service since he was 15. Last week, business writer Will Buss visited Riskovsky at his shop to look back on six decades of a hobby that has been a labor of love:
Q: If you started fixing cars for money while in high school, then when did you work on your first engine?
A: “I guess I was 11 years old when I got my first engine. I had a Model A engine and disassembled it, I reassembled it and mounted it onto a little red wagon. There was a salvage yard at the time on Madison Avenue, and they fixed a little fuel can for me that I could hook up to this engine so I could get it started. So I mounted the motor up in my dad’s driveway and my neighbor down the street asked what I was doing and I told him, but I still needed a battery, and he said ‘Jimmy, take the battery out of my car.’ So I pulled the battery out of his car and put it on there and got the thing running. But being 11 years old, it’s hard to hold something like that, especially when it’s hot. So I couldn’t hold and I had a couple of bricks holding the tires to keep it from rolling out on to the street. Well, lo and behold, from the vibration of it, it rolled out onto the street and dumped over. My dad came out, called the junkyard and said come and get this motor. It broke my heart that they had to come and take my motor. The next day, I went out and to the junkyard and bought another motor. So that’s how it started out.”
Q: Did anyone teach you about auto mechanics?
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A: “My dad never knew how to drive, never knew anything about a car. I got him behind the wheel of a car, and as soon as the car moved, he jumped out. He never wanted to know how to drive. He said, ‘As long as I have you kids, I don’t need to drive.’ He never knew anything about cars. He was a hard worker. All of his life, he was a hard worker. He was a blacksmith at General Steel, where he worked for a number of years until he retired. My mom and dad both came here from Macedonia in Greece. My dad came here when he was 18, my mom came over when she was 16. They met each other in Madison and got married. And they had my sister, who is a year older than me, and then they had me.”
Q: How did your business get started?
A: “I had a old Buick. I bought it when I was 14 years old. It’s a 1938 four-door sedan and I bought it and I started working on it, sanding it, painting it, working on the motor and every mechanical aspect that I could, and I could do it outside in my dad’s driveway. There was a building in the back of a cleaners at 4th and Madison that other people were renting at one time but had moved out. I went to the guy who owned the building and said I would like to rent your building, and he said, ‘Jimmy, what are you going to do with it?,’ and I said I’d like to work on cars. Well, it seems that the first day I was in that building, people started coming in wanting their cars fixed. That’s how it started and I built up a large clientele.”
Q: How did you run a business and go to school at the same time?
A: “I went to school during the day and at night I would be in my shop and work until 12 or 1 o’clock and I’d go home, take a shower, get some sleep and go back to school. So I went to school and ran the business. Right about the time after graduation, I went to Ranken Trade School and still ran my business in the evening. After I got out of Ranken, I continued to run the business and I ended up working for another company to make extra money until things really got going for me. What I did was I took my hobby and turned it into my livelihood, and it’s something that I’ve always enjoyed. It’s a challenge every day. Number one, you have to enjoy what you do and you have to like people. It’s a must in any kind of business. If you don’t like people and don’t like what you’re doing, you can’t be successful. And here it is, 60 years later, and at the age of 75, I still feel like a young kid inside.”
Q: Do you have plans to retire?
A: “I have no plans of retiring. The condition of my health, the way I feel, is energetic and I’m looking forward to next year. There is no stopping me. I have no intention of stopping.”
Q: So what keeps you going after all of these years?
A: “The people and the challenges of every day. I love that challenge when a new car comes in and to be able to pinpoint that problem. especially when it comes from another shop and they couldn’t repair it.”
Name: Jim Riskovsky
Job: Owner, Riskovsky Automotive Engineering at 1300 State St. in Madison
Outlook: “What I did was I took my hobby and turned it into my livelihood, and it’s something that I’ve always enjoyed.”