By Christina Whiting
For Homer News
On March 31, after carrying on the 66-year legacy of providing kind and caring customer service, Robert Tarnowske and his wife, Elizabeth, closed the doors for the final time on Homer garage, Sunny’s Service.
Sunny’s Service, aka Sunny’s Chevron Service, Inc., opened in 1957 as a gas station and automotive shop with an office and one bay and was owned by Sunny Shelford. In the 1970s, community member Jasper (Jay) Carroll and his wife, Arva, purchased the business, expanding the shop to include two additional bays.
Carroll’s son, Joel Jay (J.J.) worked for his father in the late 1970s and bought the business from him in 1984, providing for his wife, Diana, and their eight children, many of whom worked at the shop — changing oil, changing tires, and pumping gas — until the pumps where dismantled in the 1990s.
“When customers came in, J.J. would tell the kids to check the oil and the customer would ask if they really knew how to do that,” Diana said. “The kids would climb up on a stool and check the oil and J.J. would say, ‘yep, they know how to do that’. He taught the kids how to be responsible and to be able to take care of themselves. They loved being there and he loved having them there.”
For their children, the shop is full of childhood memories. Elizabeth worked at the shop after school, hanging out with her father and grandfather.
“All of us kids grew up and worked there,” she said. “So many times, people would come in and ask dad if he could fix something and he’d stop what he was doing, fix the issue, and often didn’t charge them. He cared so much about people and was very kind-hearted.”
Through the years, J.J. had numerous employees, including Robert Tarnowske, who married Elizabeth in 2008 and worked at Sunny’s for a time before returning to Arizona to work his family’s own garage. In 2010, J.J. made plans to retire due to health issues. With none of the grandchildren wanting to or having the experience to run the shop, and Tarnowske both experienced and interested, the couple returned to Homer preparing to take over the business. In 2013 they purchased Sunny’s and in 2017, J.J. passed away.
Diana and J.J. were married for 53 years. She said that after he died, community members, and elderly women on their own in particular, shared with her how much his kindness meant to them.
“J.J. was always very honest about what needed to be fixed and often he didn’t charge these ladies a dime,” Diana said. “He saw how vulnerable they were and he knew that he could help them feel safe on the road.”
Tarnowske’s own history with cars included working in his family’s shop in Arizona where he began pumping gas and washing windows when he was 9 years old.
“My first tools were a key for the gas pump, a washer squeegee, a plastic funnel, and a rag,” he said.
At 12, he was changing tires and at 17, managing his dad’s business. All the while, he also fixed, restored and sold old cars, learning from the mechanics at the garage.
He also worked as a service writer at a Chevy dealership for a time.
When the couple married, they melded families, Tarnowske and his two sons and Elizabeth and her three daughters and one son. In Homer, keeping the family tradition alive, his sons Robbie and Cody worked in the garage for a time, and for the past year and a half, her daughter Melissa worked the front desk, ordering parts, running errands, greeting people, answering phones, and managing invoices.
“My Grandpa J.J. and the shop was a big part of my life and I was grateful to have the opportunity to work in the family business,” Melissa said. “To be a part of something that I knew was his was very special.”
Community member Tezlyn Kerrone worked as a service mechanic for the past six months, learning the “grease monkey” trade.
“Robert was a really good teacher,” Kerrone shared. “I’m sad they closed, but I’ve learned a lot and will use what he taught me in my next job.”
Other community members who worked at Sunny’s Service, to name just a few, include Garrett Smith, John Einfeldt, Rhonda Ridener, and George Anderson.
Anderson worked for J.J. for more than 20 years.
“The thing I remember most was the feeling of family,” Anderson said. “J.J. was more than just a boss. He was a father figure to many of us.”
In addition to wanting to retire early, Tarnowske said that they lost earthquake insurance, that the cost required to repair the building would have been extensive, and that he and his wife decided it was time for a change.
“I’m proud that I was able to maintain a business that’s been in Homer and my wife’s family for so long,” he said. “I’ve worked hard to provide great service, I’m grateful to my customers for their support, and I’m looking forward to spending more time fishing.”
With the building and land now sold, Tarnowske takes with him many memories, from an employee who caught the shop on fire seven different times, to the most challenging job he ever had — replacing a VW Jetta heater core that took 14 hours, requiring him to pull the front seats and entire dash out — to fun and interesting conversations with his “regulars” and those who brought him thank you gifts, most often in the form of desserts.
For the family, selling is bittersweet.
“The shop has been a big part of our family for years, but I know that all good things must come to an end,” Elizabeth said. “I think my dad would be sad, but would also be proud of the way we ran it, with the values of honesty, integrity, and kindness that were important to him. My siblings and I will always have great memories of the shop.”
No doubt their many customers will too.
Stories about Sunny’s Service and its history in the community are being shared on Facebook page, Historical Homer in a post created April 4. If you have stories and/or photos you would like to include, the family would enjoy reading and seeing them there.