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‘Mr. Rick’ brought sunshine to children, from his heart, soul and being

Richard R. Siska joined John W. Fountain on Thursday mornings to read to boys and girls at Matteson Elementary School. He died earlier this year.

John Fountain’s friend Richard Siska reads to children at Matteson Elementary School.
John Fountain’s friend Richard Siska reads to children at Matteson Elementary School.
Photo by John Fountain.

“This is my commandment, That ye love one another, as I have loved you. Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” — St. John 15:12-13

Be like Rick. Give without regret, without expectation. Love without dissimulation. Live, laugh, love, uplift others, even the least of these. Be like Rick.

I want to be like Rick.

In a world that assigns superstar and role model status to men with bulging muscles, to so-called heroes who drip with bravado, physical power and prowess; a world that immortalizes professional athletes and idolizes fictional heroes like Iron Man, Captain America and the Incredible Hulk; everyday mere mortal men often go overlooked.

Sometimes pass from this life into invisible eternity like a vapor — barely noticed, their presence dissolved, perhaps soon to be forgotten. Except by those who have felt upon their hearts and soul the breath and beauty of a man who poured purely, selflessly, from his heart, soul and being — until his breath itself was gone.

Like Rick. I want to be like Rick…

Rick, or “Mr. Rick,” as the children of Matteson Elementary School called him, was my partner in time for a season now cemented in my soul.

He is my brother from another mother who answered my call six years ago. “Looking for a few good men,” I wrote in my column. Richard R. Siska showed up one bright Thursday morning.

He was the first. And for a while, he was the only. We were ebony and ivory.

Plainly dressed and dripping with the enthusiasm of a newly minted grandpa, he said he had stumbled upon my column.

“I was like, ‘hey, I’m not doing anything,’” he quipped. “‘I can do that.’”

And so he did. For the children. Always for the children.

Rick used to tell me, smiling with that effervescent childish gleam in his eyes, “Johnny, I don’t know how much time the Good Lord has left for me here, but I’m gonna read until I can’t. I just love it.”

Lord, make me more like Rick…

Honestly, I had hoped initially to recruit a battalion of Black men to help read at the predominantly Black south suburban school.

But Mr. Rick would teach me a lesson: That more important than the color of a man’s skin, what’s needed for mentoring Black children is the content of a man’s heart. That the heart of a man willing to become an agent of change for his community can become a rainbow of hope, joy, sunshine.

Mr. Rick brought the sunshine. Every single Thursday morning of every week we assembled to read, with every ounce of joy and energy that surrounded him like a golden sun-lit aura. He loved the children. And they loved him back, their voices ringing upon sighting him in the halls, “Misssssterrrrr Riiiiiick!”

Lord, I want to love like Rick...

On many mornings, it was just Mr. Rick and me. Then others joined. Some came and went. We eventually grew to a steady faithful dozen.

In my times of discouragement over the absence of other men, Mr. Rick’s presence helped me keep the faith. Honestly, some mornings I would have been a no-show — disheartened by the virtual complete absence of the fathers of the several hundred children enrolled at the school. Mr. Rick’s enthusiasm and assured presence each Thursday called me to accountability.

He became a one-man public relations machine known to pester public officials and show up at village meetings, recruiting and extolling the virtues of our program. Of course, I wrote again. We even stood on the street with signs. News traveled. The news cameras came. So did the men. On rare Thursdays, we had as many as 40. Then the young men at Southland College Prep Charter High School joined our ranks.

We were up and running smoothly. Then last year the pandemic happened, school closures and remote learning, and a pause in our reading program, though thanks to technology, we returned virtually. Now Real Men Read is available online and in perpetuity to children district-wide, even globally.

…All from a dream and a seed when there was once only me — and Mr. Rick.

Mr. Rick, my brother and dear friend, suffered an injury in summer 2020, and was never able to join our virtual readings. He died on a winter’s Friday, on Jan. 22, surrounded by family — passing from this life into eternity, though not from our hearts and memories. He was 86.

This weekend, at a service at Matteson School to celebrate his life, family and friends will remember Richard R. Siska. For the way he gave — without regret. For the way he loved — without dissimulation.

And as a mere mortal but real-life hero who poured purely, selflessly, from his heart, soul and being — until his breath itself was gone. For the children. For the good of his community. And whose fragrance, like a rose that blooms afresh each season, will live on.

I love you, brother. I miss you. And I hope someday to see you again.

Until then, Lord, make me more like Rick.

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