It was 1978. Tom Oleski, then 22 years old, and his buddy Kenny Leible were finishing up their summer working at the Lake of the Ozarks.
“Hey,” Oleski said. “You wanna go to California?”
“When?” his friend said.
“Right now!” Tom exclaimed. “Heads we go, tails we stay.”
Heads. They packed in Leible’s Triumph convertible and headed to St. Louis to grab some clothing.
The two hitchhiked the nearly 2,000 miles to Orange County, California, where Oleski planned to meet up with a number of relatives who lived there. Leible lasted only a year and a half in The Golden State, but for the next 24 years, Oleski called it home.
It’s where he gained his X-Ray certification and worked as an assistant in the radiology department at St. Joseph’s Hospital of Orange; where he began his now 25-year marriage to Francesca; where they raised two children, Victoria and Peter; and where they built a nail salon out of their garage so Francesca could continue her work as a nail artist while caring for their children.
In 2002, the Oleski family relocated to Hartsburg. The couple, having visited mid-Missouri a number of times during their tenure in California, knew they wanted to raise their children near Columbia because of the “5-star schools.” What Oleski might not have anticipated was becoming so fondly known by many who passed through his checkout line at Schnucks.
We had the chance to meet Oleski and learn more about what keeps him in good spirits. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What do you like about working at Schnucks?
I love it. It is the people. It’s not the money. I come here for the kids, the people. I’d give it all away if I could. I’d tell em, “Just take what you need, leave some for the next person.”
The kids come through my line; I’ve always given the kids stickers. So I kinda have got that reputation. The kids come walking through the door and say, “Momma he’s here! The sticker guy is here!”
What was your life like in Southern California?
I lived in Orange County for about the first half of (my 24 years there), and then I met a girl who made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. She was out in the Riverside area in Norco, a little horse town. There were 17,000 people or something like that, but that was a small town.
But there were no sidewalks or not much in the way of stores or anything like that. They had a little local market in town and a lot of feed stores for the animals because you could have animals.
I had rabbits, chickens, ducks, goats; I raised two steers at all times for meat. I had two horses, gave a little girl a place to board — well not board cause I didn’t charge her — but she was going to lose her horse. Her dad had died and her mom was struggling, so I said, “Don’t let that little girl lose her horse. Bring it over here; I’ve got five corrals. I’ll put four corrals up, and she can put that horse here and come over and ride it whenever she wants.”
The Sherman Brown Jr. Award category specifies that you treat every person “like gold.” How do you strive to do that?
My mother — rest her soul, for many, many years, she’s been in heaven — but she used to say, “Tommy, you got more than some, and you got less than others, but what is always free is a kind word and a smile.
And if you do that for people, you might make their day cause you don’t know what they’ve been through five minutes…” and I’m gonna cry ‘cause she said this, “you don’t know what they’ve been through five minutes before they’ve come onto you. So if you can just change that … just for that short minute that they come up on you, then your day will be more complete and by far theirs will be, too.”
I worked at a hospital for a lot of years in between stints in the grocery business … I just didn’t deal well with death, and the reason being is, I love life so much. I know I’m at the last part of my three junctures in my life, but I hope this last one lasts a lot longer than the other two even. I have so much to be thankful for.
What does the Sherman Brown Jr. Award mean to you and the Columbia community?
If they so honor me — and have honored me in my nomination — I’ll continue it to try and be every bit the person that Sherman Brown was. Growing up in St. Louis, we’d come up here for football games and stuff like that. Columbia’s been around for a long time. Just in my 15 years that I’ve been here, I’ve seen so much growth here in this town, but I try to keep it as a small town atmosphere as far as coming through my line.