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Cheney Tire celebrates 60th anniversary of serving customers in Watertown

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As a teenager, Thomas J. Cheney learned from his father, Dennis J., that going to work shouldn’t feel like a chore, but a way of life.

That philosophy is shared by employees at Cheney Tire, which celebrated its 60th anniversary March 5.

The elder Mr. Cheney launched a gas station and service shop on State Street in March of 1954, and the business has become a fixture in the city of Watertown. Mr. Cheney, who worked in the family business until 2007, died in 2009 at the age of 91.

Thomas Cheney, now the sole owner of the business, said his father had an unbridled enthusiasm for serving customers that inspired him as a youngster.

“When you grow up around something, you learn a passion for it,” Mr. Cheney said. “My father would come home from work, and I’d always rush out to greet him. He’d take his work boots off and have dinner with the family. But he would never talk about money or how busy he was; it was always about the cars he was working on and customers he was serving, and I think that’s always been embedded in me.”

Originally launched as Cheney Gulf Service Station, the family-owned business changed its name to Cheney Tire in 1978, when Mr. Cheney and his late brother, David G., joined their father as co-owners. The company later closed its gas station in 1982 and expanded its full-service auto department, adding multiple service bays.

Mr. Cheney began working for his father at the auto shop at age 12. His earliest memory of the business, however, is watching the shop being built on State Street in 1953, when he was three years old. At the time, his maternal grandfather, George Burns, owned a house across the street from the shop at 922 State St.

“I remember sitting across the street watching them build it,” he said. “As a boy I loved trucks and excavation, so my grandfather would show me around. Of course, I never knew it would turn into this someday.”

The 1968 graduate of Immaculate Heart Central School went on to earn his bachelor’s degree in business science from St. John Fisher College, Rochester, in 1972. But after a short stint working at Marine Midland Bank, Mr. Cheney was lured back to the family business.

And he has no regrets about that decision.

“I love coming to work every day, and I think my employees do, too,” he said. “Your days go by so fast. And I know a lot of people in the community because they are customers. We help each other as friends, and it’s a beautiful feeling.”

The work ethic of the late founder, Dennis, still is remembered by its staff of 36 employees, several of whom worked alongside him for decades. The oldest part-time employee on staff, Dennis J. Gehring, was hired at the shop in 1956 when he was 18 years old.

“It was only a five-man crew back then, including Dennis Cheney,” Mr. Gehring recalled. “We were paid $50 a week.”

Hard, honest work without any shortcuts was the message that Mr. Cheney preached to employees, Mr. Gehring said. And it stuck.

“If you were washing a car, Dennis was liable to work there next to you,” he said. “He worked six days a week like the rest of us and would come in during the night to do the books. He’d say, ‘When that driveway bell rings, you get out there and serve that customer. This is how I want you to service ... and if you take any shortcuts, you’re done.’”

He continued, “I think it’s the work ethic that he instituted around the employees that he hired that helped the company become so successful.”


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