Monday, January 25, 2016

Henry "Red" Sutkoski: 4/24/1920 - 1/23/2016

My dad, Red Sutkoski, in his tavern, Red's Place, shortly
before he retired in 1991. Red's Place
was a popular gathering spot in West Rutland,
Vermont for the four decades my father owned the place.
Photo by my brother in law, David Jenne. 
My dad, Red Sutkoski passed away Saturday afternoon, January 23, 2016 at the age of 95.

He had a damn good run, that's for sure.

He wasn't well known outside of Vermont, but in a time when we can all be overwhelmed by the greed, crassness, ill will and anger out there, the whole world could learn from his grace, giving nature and gentle wit.

Dad was born in 1920 to Polish immigrants in what was then the busy marble quarrying town of West Rutland, Vermont.

Dad, known to everyone from Day One as Red for his red hair, lived a sweep of West Rutland's history:

He saw onstruction of the duplexes built for Vermont Marble Company workers, the Great Flood of 1927, the Great Depression, the labor riots among West Rutland quarry workers in the 1930s.

Red saw Prohibition, during which he good naturedly took note of who got busted for making what dad called "Screech," which was the shockingly abysmal home made booze people discreetly made during that time.

Along with most of West Rutland's young men, Red marched off to World War II. He came back, opened his restaurant and bar, and from that perch saw the town at first thrive with the marble quarries, then go into a near death spiral when the quarries closed and the jobs evaporated.

He watched West Rutland struggle back from those days, and had a hand in its slow rebirth, by encouraging its redevelopment while honoring the community's history.

Red was the unofficial Town Historian, as he was the go to person to ask whenever you wanted to know what happened in town anytime after 1920, the year he was born. His mind was sharp to the end.

He was much more than West Rutland's memory vault, and everybody in town knew it. His warmth, humor, compassion and friendship brought out the best in the town,. The best in its people. His family. Me.
My dad, Red Sutkoski outdoors in his younger days. He loved
being outside, especially if it was working on a project
to benefit those around him. 

That restaurant and tavern Red owned for 40 years in the heart of West Rutland had the official name of Marble Valley Restaurant, but everybody just knew it as Red's Place.

It was the spot where marble quarry workers, Polish immigrants, truck drivers, the lonely, the gregarious, and the occasional drunk went, as the Billy Joel song says, to forget about life for awhile.

Or maybe embrace it. With Red's laughter ringing out over the sound of either a Polish polka or Patsy Cline warbling from the juke box, the smoky Red's Place was the most welcoming and lively place in town.

There's even a song by the excellent Vermont band Starline Rhythm Boys called Red's Place that is about my dad and his bar. It captures the vibe of the bar, and my dad just perfectly. (Watch the video of the Boys performing that song at the bottom of this blog post.)

Red's Place wasn't fancy, and neither was the clientele. Dad liked it that way. Sure, he embraced and befriended everyone,  including the rich and powerful. As long as they didn't abuse people with their power and money, or victimized them with it.

Dad's soft spot, though, was for the underdog, which was why Red's Place was such a good fit for him, and such a good fit for West Rutland.

Red's Place was a second home to quarry workers, Polish immigrants, truck drivers, farmers, and other town residents who just wanted a friendly refuge for the evening.

Many of us Americans are perhaps inadvertently raised to celebrate the rich, the powerful, the flashy, the thrilling. And that's all OK, except when we do so at the expense of everyone else. Or worse, we ignore the underdogs as not important and not worth our time.

Dad knew everyone was important, and he showed it by being welcoming to everybody. As long as they weren't hurting anyone else.

Dad's example in his life and work showed me how to do the opposite of that. He taught me to seek out the people we're "supposed" to ignore and dismiss. The ones that have no power, who live quiet lives, who live humbly, through choice or circumstance.

For all that I'm a much richer, happier, well-rounded person.  We should all live by dad's example. The world would be a much better place if we did.
Red Sutkoski as a young man reading the paper with a faithful
companion at his West Rutland, Vermont home. It was
a perfect combination for him. Red loved animals,
and he was always curious about what
was going on in the world around him. 

That doesn't mean we should be somber sympathizers to those who aren't at the top of the heap. The only way dad's example worked, how his life worked, was through a sense of humor.

If there's not laughter, according to the Rules of Red, there's not much else to live for.

So Red loved telling stories of other's foibles, in a way that celebrates rather than ridicules our pratfall moments.

As mentioned, West Rutland had many Polish immigrants that came to work in the quarries during the later 19th century and early 20th century.  Many people, including dad, regularly spoke Polish.

At Red's Place, you'd often hear people yell out "Nostrovia," the Eastern European equivalent to "Cheers!" when people share a toast.

At one point, a new guy started coming into Red's Place. He was worried about fitting in, and didn't speak much. He listened, trying to understand the vernacular.

This guy kept hearing everyone saying "Nostrovia!" and finally decided to make his move. He bought the man sitting next to him a beer, and chimed in with that golden cheer. The man clinked the bottle with his new buddies at the bar and shouted, "Nice driveway!"

The moment was so funny that dad immediately embraced the Nice Driveway guy as a good friend.

Dad loved telling the "Nice Driveway" story, such that I've taken it upon myself to spread the tale. Everyone knows that when they share a drink or a bottle with me, we'll clink our glasses and tell each other, "Nice driveway."

If that's not a good tribute to Red, I don't know what is.

God knows dad's sense of humor was gloriously goofy.  One great example was a day a long time ago when he was walking along Marble Street in West Rutland.

A car with out of state plates pulled up along side him, its driver obviously lost and in need of directions. "How do you get to Tinmouth?,"  the woman in the passenger seat asked dad.

"My brother takes me,!" dad replied.

Of course, he said he was just kidding, and made sure the couple in the car got on the right road to Tinmouth.

Roads figure pretty prominently in my memory of dad.

When I was about six or seven years old,  the state was building a four lane road in back of our house. The Brand New Route 4.

The way the road was built in back of our house,  there was a two lane eastbound lane, situated at an elevation several feet above the parallel westbound lanes.

As they were building the road, dad and I would go up and explore the construction site. Often, he'd start singing, of all things, a bit of the Scottish song "The Bonny Banks of Loch Lomond."

The part he'd sing, was "You take the high road and I'll take the low road."

On the surface, his words could be taken as a simple commentary on the highway construction. But there was a deeper meaning. He was instructing me to take the high road in life, just as he did.  I guess the best way we can remember Red and his life is to always take that high road. And I'm not talking about eastbound Route 4 here.

Red's M.O. was to take the high road quietly.  He had a gorgeous habit of honoring history, and the people that came before him. In a remote corner of West Rutland, the Whipple Hollow Cemetery had become overgrown, broken down and all but forgotten by people in town.

So he took it upon himself to clear the broken trees and branches, rip out the weeds, replant grass and got some help fixing broken grave stones.  This kind of stuff dad did is infectious.

As dad was at the Whipple Hollow Cemetery one day, Markowski Excavating was working on a nearby construction project. When they saw what dad was doing, they quickly went up to the cemetery with an excavator to clear rocks, stumps and debris away.

Dad never worried about controversial topics, especially when they involved love. When I came out as gay and introduced him to Jeff Modereger, the man I would marry, dad embraced Jeff like he would his own son.

Dad's biggest goal was that his three children, me, Lynn and Laurie, would be happy and well taken care of. Dad went out knowing that the husbands and partners of us three kids were making us all happy, and would take care of us beautifully once he was gone.

My dad and my father-in-law, Don Modereger, were both about 90 years old when Jeff and I married. Don had a lot in common with Red, especially in terms of their warmth, generosity, compassion and good humor.

Red and Don's only face to face meeting was at my wedding. (Don lived way out in South Dakota, and it was hard for both Red and Don to travel.)

Even so, Red and Don immediately became good friends. I can't help but think the two fathers are sharing a good laugh as I write this.

This month, dad's physical heart finally gave out, worn down by 95 years of work and family and joy and troubles and worry and friendship.  But his metaphorical, spiritual and loving heart kept beating strong. It still is.

There's not going to be a wake or a funeral or anything like that, because Red said he didn't want such ceremonies.  He never wanted people to make a fuss over him. Red told us that if anybody wanted to mark his passing, they should just do something kind for someone else.

To close out and keep celebrating Dad's life,the video of the Starline Rhythm Boys performing "Red's Place" is coming up.

When you watch it, grab a beer, and another one to share with a friend. Clink the two bottles together, tell each other "Nice driveway," laugh, and then say or do something good for anyone you see around you.

Red will see this, fetch another round for his friends in heaven, and the party will go on here and up there. Just as he wants it.

So dad, all I can say to you now is "Nice driveway."


  1. Nice driveway!

    And nice tribute. The world could use a few more Reds. My sincerest condolences to you and your family.

  2. Great write up on your Dad!I met your Dad for the first time at Reds. He always made you feel welcome. I was glad to see him at the dedication of the WWII memorial,where I got a few photos of him. I shared them on this webpage. Sorry for your loss. Michael Chaloux "Red" RIP

  3. Beautifully told by a son who obviously learned well from his father. Thank you for sharing these stories.


  4. Beautifully told by a son who obviously learned well from his father's example. Thank you for recounting Red's life and spirit.