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If you see something amazing that's been fixed, built, or otherwise created at Branford Public Schools (BPS), it's probably the work of Joe Kobylanksi, who goes by "Joe K."
Joe's latest creation is a glorious marble-counting machine taking center stage on the main floor of the Blackstone Library all summer long. Joe thought it up, then designed and built it at the request of Assistant Superintendent of Schools Dr. Mary Peraro. By dropping in a marble for each book they read, the kids will be rewarded and help the entire town visualize their collective accomplishment during the 2014 Summer Reading Game.
"It's just wonderful. We're going to see if we can get 5,000 marbles in there," says Peraro.
Take it from Joe, there's room enough for 6,000 marbles-just in case the kids get really get into their reading. As with every project he takes on for BPS-mechanical, carpentry, electrical, plumbing, building, engine work, you name it-Joe's planned everything out and added little touches and details that elevate his work to artisan level.
Besides dreaming up the octagon-shaped, Plexiglas, oak-and-finished-pine housing, with its 12 sets of see-through slides and cylinders (each holds 500 marbles), and building it after hours on his own time, "I said, 'Okay, it's going to the library,' so I took a picture of my favorite part and I incorporated that," says Joe of the mezzanine reading room in the library, which, in tiny scale, encircles the marble runs.
Once the cylinder columns are full of marbles, in a "play on words," they'll also represent the marble columns outside the library, says Joe. The clever piece is a definite kid-magnet, as Joe, Mary, and many others found out when it premiered at the May 31 "Fizz, Boom, Read!" summer reading kickoff at the Blackstone.
"I got to see the kids play with it, and they love it. It's a unique way to count that's a lot of fun and there's something to look at, and eventually you'll know how many books the children have read. Even though I made it myself, I'm going to say it's pretty cool," says Joe, smiling.
Joe's not one for needing recognition for what he's done, but his body of work deserves noting and extends well beyond school building fixes and creative solutions.
"When something snaps, crack, or pops we fix it," says Joe, who is a one-man army, and Maintenance Department, for BPS. "I make cabinets, I weld, I do plumbing [and] minor electrical, we put in pumps [and] motors…because I have such an extensive carpentry background I've built offices, rooms, and cabinets for the schools. A lot of teachers don't even know who I am, because you have the custodians who do a really good job with the everyday stuff, so if you don't have a major break down, you're not going to see me."
A Branford resident with his wife of 42 years, Margie, Joe was known for at least 30 of those years as the guy who crafted amazing floats for the annual Short Beach parade.
"I made B-17 bombers-27 feet long-and a Budweiser wagon at half scale that was 40 feet long; the horses and the wagon. I was known as the 'wood guy' back then," says Joe, adding that he didn't keep any of the designs.
"No, I chopped it up and threw it away. Otherwise, I would have to have a warehouse like Disney!"
Thankfully, some of the pieces Joe creates, especially through his hobby crafting intricate, high-end wooden projects (Joe's made wooden replicas of motorcycles, houses, cars, trucks, and more) are still around. Once, to help out the town's PTA organizations, he built a six-foot long replica of a 19th-century steam train, using 22 different kinds of wood. It came complete with engine, coal car, parlor car, and more. The creation was detailed to the point of the parlor car's interior (accessed by removing the roof) with a pool table and potbellied stove. The piece, displayed in turn at each of the town's elementary schools, sold thousands of raffle tickets, at $1 each, to raise money for the respective PTAs.
Toy-making ability and handsomely bearded face aside, Joe's no Santa Claus, he says, laughing. Among his other hobbies, he's currently rebuilding the engine of his 1952 Willys Jeep to get ready for his fifth summer season of drag racing on the New Jersey/New York circuit. A veteran of the Vietnam War, Joe joined up in 1967 and was sent in during the historic Tet Offensive in 1968.
"I saw President Johnson, right in front of me; we were at Pope Air Force Base and they locked down the base and said, 'You're going,'" says Joe. "I was a paratrooper, so I jumped out of airplanes and all that crazy stuff. A military 'chute's made to come down fast, so it's like jumping off a three-story building. When you land, it's very shocking."
Joe served until 1970 and returned to Branford and Short Beach, a place first introduced to him by friends in the mid-1960s. Joe was born in Linz, Austria, and came to New Haven with his parents when he was two. His father, a lumberjack in his native country, worked in manufacturing here. Joe's own work experience is varied and extensive.
"I started out as a mechanic and became truck driver, then I worked in the industrial segment. I ran a trailer shop rebuilding trailers, then I was maintenance supervisor for a big paper mill, and from there I worked for Brothers Harley Davidson in New Haven. I came here as a favor when I was semi-retired. I was working inside part time when the fellow before me left the Maintenance Department and I got the job," says Joe, who is based out of a shop in the Public Works Garage on Route 139.
"I love this job, I just wish I wasn't as broken as I am," says Joe, who has undergone 10 operations in 14 years, including surgery to replace both knees and procedures on both shoulders.
Still, Joe has no immediate plans to retire.
"I said to [BPS Facilities Manager] Mark Deming years ago, if I walked in and told you I could do this, and this, and this, you wouldn't hire me-because nobody can do all that!" says Joe. "I'm just lucky. There's almost nothing that I can't fix, and every two hours, it's something different."