Joe Sykes’ railroad ties run deep.
A third generation railroader, he remembers taking his first train ride on Chicago’s L when he was 9 years old. And from the time he was 11 until he turned 18 he spent an hour nearly every Friday at Chicago Union Station waiting for his father to get off work at the U.S. Post Office across the street. During those weekly visits, Sykes met mentors who taught him the ins and outs of operations at Chicago’s busiest railroad terminal.
Some 45 years later, it’s little wonder Sykes has been called the mayor of Union Station.
Sykes shrugs off the title with humility. He’d rather be known as Joe, or maybe the friendly guy in the yellow coat. He’s too busy to dwell on nicknames anyway.
“Twelve-thirty Aurora is ready on eight,” he shouts on the south concourse. “SouthWest to Orland Park on two!”
Sykes is a communications supervisor for Metra and a friendly fixture many commuters are likely to recognize. His willingness to help is clear even when he’s not announcing departures and directions. On the front of his yellow Metra jacket he’s pinned a scrolling electric sign that reads: “Need help? Ask me!”
Sykes admits he was bit by the railroad bug at an early age.
“It’s in my blood,” Sykes said. “My grandfather was a carman for the Burlington in Cicero, and my mother was a timekeeper at the Pullman Car Company who did billing for Union Station.”
On Fridays from 1972 to 1980, he rode a Milwaukee Road train in from Elmwood Park with his mother, Betty, who at the time was working as a computer programmer for the Illinois Bell Telephone Company. From there, he’d hang around Union Station until it was time to catch the 4:37 p.m. train home with his father, John.
Sykes quickly befriended the railroad and station employees, fetching them pops or lunch before departing for the week. One of the milestones of those early days came on his 12th birthday when a retiring Santa Fe conductor gave Sykes his hat. The conductor had scribbled a note that read: “I gave this hat to Joe Sykes for his birthday. E.F. DeHolm” to ensure no one would question the hat’s ownership.
“I brought it home. I never wore it, but with that it was like ‘holy smokes. I’m in,’” Sykes recalled.
Over the next few years he was put to work by two station employees who told Sykes there was no way he was going to hang around without learning anything. His early mentors had him clearing train orders and assisting passengers.
“By the time I was 18 I had learned a lot of the jobs in the station,” Sykes said. “One of the superintendents saw me talking to an assistant station master and he said, ‘Hey, why don’t you get back to work?’ and I said, ‘You haven’t hired me yet.’”
At 18, he went to work for Amtrak. His first assignment was as a laborer in the Santa Fe’s 21st Street Yard; he later worked as a hostler helper and then a reservations agent, returning to Union Station in 1986 as a temporary gateman.
Sykes ventured into the freight side of the business in March 1986, joining a group of friends to start the Pioneer Railcorp, a railroad holding company that owns short line railroads and several other railroad related businesses. The company celebrated its 31st anniversary this year.
Sykes left Amtrak and started with Metra in 1999, working at Tower A-2 and A-5 as a tower operator. Two years later he was back in Union Station as a communication supervisor. His various assignments have taken him to Metra’s other downtown terminals, but Union Station remains his favorite.
He takes pride in being there to help passengers find their way around the station, said his supervisor, Michelle Sanchez.
“Not only does Joe go above and beyond the call of duty on a daily basis but he genuinely cares about each passenger he assists,” Sanchez said.
Sykes is also a family man. He and his wife, Debbie, have two daughters. They lost their 7-year-old son, Joey, in 2004 after a three-year battle with neuroblastoma, a rare cancer. The family partners with the St. Raymond Athletic Association at St. Raymond School in Mt. Prospect to host the annual Joey Sykes Boys’ Basketball Tournament. The funds raised are donated to the Bear Necessities Pediatric Cancer Foundation.