Ronnie Joy’s love of hot rods and drag racing steered him into the radiator repair business.
He didn’t earn enough money at a railroad job to support his racing habit, so when he graduated from high school in 1958 he took a side job at North Kansas City Radiator to earn extra cash. The two partners who owned the business were adept teachers, willing to show young Joy the ropes.
“Oh, they gave me a cussin’ just about every day until I learned,” Joy said with a laugh. “I just loved fixing things, working with my hands. The partners, though, didn’t get along with each other, so they told me I should buy the business from them.
“I was just in my early 20s at that time. My dad took me to the bank, co-signed a loan for me and told me it was my responsibility, so of course, I paid it all back. That banker is retired now, but he’s still one of my customers.”
Indeed, Joy is now into his 55th year as owner of Avondale Radiator Service, which is nestled along a quiet street just behind North Kansas City Hospital. Although the shop at 2915 Walker Road used to employ up to seven workers in the busy summer months, now it’s Joy, 75, and one employee — his brother Gary, 71.
“Gary, he’s been a lifesaver to me,” said Joy, watching his brother start the day’s work, deftly pulling heavy radiator parts out of a bath.
“Oh, but we had some battles when we were younger!” chimed in Gary from the back of the small shop. “But in the last 15 or 20 years, I can’t remember us having a single argument. Some days we may not even have to say a word to each other — we just know what needs to be done. It’s second nature.”
What’s just as impressive as Ronnie Joy’s work ethic is his work approach. He doesn’t own a smartphone or a computer. All business is tallied and logged in a simple spiral notebook.
“It always worked for me,” he said. “Though I’ve noticed in the last few years that I could probably use some more technology. It would hurry things up if I could look up parts and check stock.”
He waves his worn notebook, smiling. “I go through one of these a month. It’s my computer.”
Although he might not be tech-savvy, Ronnie Joy has managed to have a presence in the virtual word.
His daughter maintains a simple website and a Facebook account on his behalf that features auto trivia and car-care tips. If anyone wants to send him an email, they can send it to his business neighbor, Vic Austin’s Motorway. Says Joy, “They’ll call to tell me I have mail, and I’ll walk over to get it.”
Ronnie Joy and his wife, Ruth, who married right out of high school, live in Kearney, and Gary resides with his wife, Sandy, just north of Albany, Mo. Rather than make such a long commute every day, he spends part of each week with one of his three adult children who live in the Kansas City area.
“I stay with whoever’s having the best dinners that week,” joked Gary.
The two brothers have a natural rapport as the day unfolds, reading each other’s thoughts and finishing each other’s sentences. Both still remember the early days when they worked around the clock on commercial truck radiators and often had to store extra parts in home basements.
Today a large percentage of the shop’s business is in vintage cars and tractors. The Joys also maintain a loyal following of longtime customers who rely on their estimates and workmanship.
“We have three generations of the same families coming in here,” Ronnie Joy said.
Ronnie Joy doesn’t like the idea of retirement much at all, but with some health issues, he knows it’s a reality he’ll have to consider at some point soon. Gary says he sees a rocking chair and extra time hunting and fishing in his retirement future.
“It’s just a way of life,” said Gary. “But still … we’ll miss it awful bad.”
Ronnie Joy echoes his brother’s thoughts as he glances around the shop.
“I ain’t gonna like it,” he said of eventually deciding to leave the business. “I ain’t gonna like it at all, I guarantee it, but the writing’s on the wall.”