No matter the weather or the backyard terrain, Junior Shikles has been keeping Mid-Missouri families warm by delivering their propane with a smiley face on their bill.
For many rural families, May 23 will signal the end of era as Shikles will retire after 27 years with Gasco Energy Supply LLC.
A kind-hearted and diligent man, Shikles' customers enjoyed the occasion of visiting with him in person and the reliability of him keeping their tanks full.
It was the ice-covered routes with downed-power lines during the winter of 1972 that convinced Shikles gas delivery was the career he wanted.
He received a half-day of training from Richard Woods with MFA Oil and then was handed a list of customers. So he learned the ropes quickly.
"I got to thinking after that winter, "this is really what I want to do the rest of my life,'" Shikles said. "Lloyd Kimball and Joe Hoffner had been doing it for 30 years or more and I decided right then I could, too.
"I have made a lot of friends on routes and loved my job."
The propane delivery business has changed dramatically since Shikles started.
Cell phones in particular have helped the driver, especially on the wintry nights when wives like Kathy used to wait up wondering about their safety.
To best serve his customers, Shikles would give out his home number, which became like a second office for part of the year, while Kathy also operated an in-home day care. Now, Shikles fields all of his own calls.
"Without a good wife behind you, to back you, you couldn't do this job," Shikles said.
Kathy followed, "It wasn't always easy."
Before high-efficiency furnaces and better-built homes, deliverymen would visit monthly through the winter and a home would average up to 1500 gallons per season. Now, the average use is about 700 gallons and deliveries might be six weeks apart, Eddie said.
"If it's good for our customers, it's good for us," he said of the decreased volume per household.
Shikles noted that has allowed him to meet more new customers and grow his route.
Other changes from Shikles beginning days include global positioning software replacing handwritten route cards, automatic over manual transmissions, better roads and increased driver comfort and safety.
Shikles went to work for Eddie Simmons at Gasco Energy Supply LLC in 1987.
"I'm going to be lost without my junior," Eddie said.
Looking to his retirement, Shikles has a large garden spot prepared and a wood shop full of restoration and assembly projects.
"I have a bunch of stuff I want to build," he said.
He also intends to go fishing and traveling. And he and Kathy recently have returned to the Russellville area.
But retirement won't really be good-bye for Shikles and many of his 650 customers from Cole Camp to Fulton, whom he intends to continue visiting now as a friend instead of for service.
For many Mid-Missouri customers, Shikles has been a friend for decades. His cheerful manner and devotion to giving 120 percent to his work have won over many, who often have left brownies and treats for him or have written grateful notes sent in with their bills.
"Junior gets more personal gifts from his customers," said Michelle Simmons. "He probably gets one-a-week plus Christmas gifts."
Providing his service with sincerity might be a way to pick new customers. But for Shikles, it's his nature.
"His customers trust him; they know he won't let them run out," Michelle said.
Shikles has never met a stranger, his wife Kathy added.
"I've had the chance to meet a lot of really nice people," Shikles said. "I think I've got a lot accomplished over the years."
Although his schedule is not as tight in the spring and summer months, Shikles said he always has taken time to visit with each of his customers regardless of the time of year.
A driver's year speeds up the middle of August and hits a peak about December, tapering off again in March.
But Shikles is known for worrying about his customers year-round, Eddie said.
"His motivation is hard to reign in," Eddie said.
Shikles' concern for his customer's well-being has placed Shikles in some challenging situations over the years. He's driven icy and steep terrain in the dark and late at night trying to ensure his customers will have heat, despite winter weather.
And more than once, customers concerned for Shikles' well-being have demanded he stay overnight in their guest rooms before heading back out in snowstorms.
"When weather is the very worst, it's human nature to panic and think "I've gotta have gas,'" Eddie said.
In recent years, extended forecast capabilities have allowed deliverymen to get ahead of the storms, Michelle noted.
The worst was Christmas Eve 1983, Shikles said. The windchill made it feel like 70-degrees below zero, the propane was moving through the hose like molasses and his truck had broken down putting him at his last stop after midnight, Shikles recalled.
"I don't know how many Christmas Eves we've been delivering to customers worried they won't make it through the holidays," Eddie said.
"I've picked up a lot of new customers since 1972 and, along the way, new friends I think of as extended family," Shikles said.
Simmons allowed Shikles to operate his routes as if it were his own company.
"I've never paid attention to the 5 p.m. whistle bell," Shikles said. "When my customers needed gas, I've always worked until the job was done.
After 42 winters, he said it was time to slow down and spend more time with his family.
"I will greatly miss my job, serving all my friends and customers, and driving all over the Central Missouri countryside," Shikles said.