Lincolnwood Service, located at 2949 Central St., doesn’t have a website. The owner doesn’t advertise. It’s nothing showy. It’s just an honest-to-goodness, local business.
I knew nothing about the place. Then, I received this email from Evanston resident Steve Fiffer:
...Over the weekend, we sold one of the guys there our beat up, non-running old buick. [My wife] Sharon dumped everything from the trunk into a garbage bag to bring home. Last night there was a knock on our door. Barry, one of the guys from there, was returning our ipass device. Sharon had left it attached. We hadn't even thought about it. First--nice honesty, eh. Second--they delivered it. Didn't say for us to come in. A great Evanston story, and the building is interesting, too. Bobby is the proprietor. He's limping around now, because a car fell on his foot.
I stopped in this week, and owner Bobby Hillard greeted me with a warm smile.
“Hi,” I said. “I’m Christine. “A customer of yours says you’ve got an amazing business. Said you even make housecalls…”
“Oh… Steve Fiffer, right?” Bobby says, laughing. “We just try to do the right thing.”
I offer a hand to shake, but he reveals his palms, covered in oil and grease. “Not sure you want to do that,” he says with a laugh. He takes a seat on a side chair, leaving the comfortable chair for me.
I explain I’d like to write a piece about Lincolnwood Service.
“Well that’s nice,” he says, blushing. “What do you want to know?”
“How long have you been here?”
“Let’s see…” he says, counting on his fingers, “…1959.”
“Seriously?” That’s 52 years.
“I worked for the original owner for the first 25 years. This was his Pure Oil station, and then it became a Union 76 station. When the owner retired in 1983, he offered the business to me.”
Bobby says his is the only full-service station left in Evanston.
“The gas pumps actually work?” I ask.
“You bet they do,” he says, laughing.
Aside from Bobby, Lincolnwood Service has two full-time employees: Kevin and Bobby’s son, Barry. Bobby’s brother works part time, as does Bobby’s grandson, Barry, Jr.
“I came here to meet you in March,” I say, “ [and] I was told you were at physical therapy.”
“Ah, my broken ankle,” Bobby says, looking down at his foot. “It was February 1, the big storm! I raised a car, and there was ice underneath. [When] the ice melted….the car slid off and the wheel and fell on my ankle. In fifty-eight years, it was the first time I ever got hurt.”
Bobby’s never taken a sick day.
I ask about his unique house calls. Bobby explains that if someone calls him – even on a Sunday when Lincolnwood Service is closed – he likes to help.
“I love people. I love what I do.”
“Bobby,” I ask. “How’d you get such a great outlook on life?”
“I was born in the South on a farm…Mississippi. My parents just taught us to treat people right.”
Bobby was one of 12 kids. He finished high school in 1955, and his father’s friend worked in a garage. “I fell in love with auto mechanics,” Bobby says today.
When he was 18 years old in Mississippi, Bobby says, “there were no jobs for black kids.” He went to a three-year training school for auto mechanics. The training school sent Bobby to Z Frank Auto on Petersen Avenue in Chicago. He worked in the wheels division, prepping cars for cross-country shipment.
“You moved to ‘the big city’ all the way from Mississippi,” I say.
“I moved here in January,” he says with a wink.
“Brrr,” I say. “Bet you wanted to move back.”
“Not after I got a couple of paychecks!” he laughs. “It felt good. I stuck it out. I was saving and helping my parents.”
After a year and half, Bobby began working at a gas station in Evanston, kiddie-corner from the business he now owns.
“It was a Shell station,” Bobby says. “I worked there for two years, until the owner moved back to Germany.” Then Robert Thorsen, owner of Pure Oil, hired him.
“He was like a father to me,” Bobby says. “We never had a harsh word in 24 years.”
Bobby and his wife, Birdie (a Tennessee native who refers to her husband as a “workaholic”) have been married over 50 years and have three children of their own: Barry, Ricky and Brenda. As their kids grew up, Bobby and Birdie took them to Mississippi where the kids ran around with horses and cows and pigs on the farm.
When I ask Bobby what the best part of owning a business in Evanston is, his answer comes quickly. “It’s the customers. The best people in the world come through these doors.”