Joe Silipena started his business life hauling pine trees from Atlantic County to a pulp mill in Perth Amboy. He was a one-man company who often made two trips a day to the mill, two-plus hours north of home.
Still, that didn't take all his time, so he opened Joe's Garage, a one-bay car-repair shop. Silipena, who grew up in Mullica Township, fixed the cars himself when he wasn't driving, but hired a mechanic when he was on the road. Then when the paper business went bust, he got out and expanded Joe's Garage to two bays, for himself and one worker.
But before he died last month at 91, Silipena, of Hamilton Township, saw that tiny business grow to 90-plus American Recycling workers in two locations - run by the next three generations of his family. He also saw a dream he'd had for decades come true on a big day in his life.
"We gave him the greatest 90th birthday he could ever have," said his son, also named Joe, a former Atlantic County freeholder and Egg Harbor City mayor.
"For years, he knew what his goal in life was: He wanted to become a (vehicle) shredder owner," the son explained. And on the day big Joe, or Pop, hit 90, the younger Silipena generations followed through on that dream by cranking up a $3.5 million shredder - on 14.5 acres in Millville that the family had to buy to house the machine.
To make things even better, the shredder was dressed up as a battleship - because Pop was a U.S. Navy veteran of World War II on the USS Moffett, a destroyer. Sure, Pop was handed a bottle of bubbly to break to baptize his shredder.
"My brother, Eddie," - the youngest of big Joe and the late Marie Silipena's five kids - "had a lot to do with that," young Joe said, adding that Eddie is also a Navy veteran who knew how to disguise the shredder as a warship.
"My dad was so proud of that shredder, it isn't funny," his namesake said. "He had a ... golf cart, and he would ride around and just look at it - sit back and gaze at his accomplishments."
That multimillion-dollar machine grew slowly but steadily, and very logically, out of Joe's Garage. Big Joe was a natural mechanic who expanded into fixing auto bodies. That led him to start buying used cars for spare parts, which led him to start selling used parts, which is how he ended up with a lot full of scrap vehicles.
So he bought a car flattener - New Jersey's first one, his family said. And that is how American Recycling was born. But as soon as he got into the metal-recycling business, big Joe knew what he really wanted.
And on the day he turned 90, his children, and their children, gave that dream of a shredder to him, wrapped up as a present - or as a battleship, actually.
A Life Lived appears Tuesdays and Saturdays.
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