19 March 2009

Nebraska Restorer Reaches Out to Youth

Doug Kielian doesn’t have any children of his own. But he sounds like a proud father when he talks about the 55 young men that he has mentored in his auto restoration shop since 1990.

“It’s a pretty nice feeling to see these young guys go on and open shops of their own,” said Kielian, owner of Auto Kraft Body and Paint in Lincoln, Neb. “When they first came here, they started by pushing a broom and washing cars so I could get a feel for their work ethic. I was tough on them, but I took the time to teach them skills they could use.

“I remember what it was like to be a gearhead at a young age. You’re looking for as much advice as you can get. So for me to feel like I had something to do with their success, that’s pretty special.”

Kielian, 46, was raised on a small farm near Greeley, Colo., where he and his three older siblings were taught the value of hard work.

“My parents grew up in a tough era,” he said. “So we all worked. We worked a lot.”

Kielian remembers watching his neighbors drive their 1966 Ford Mustang up and down the dirt road near their farm. The Kielian brothers not-so-secretly hoped to own the car one day, and that day arrived in the summer of ’76, when Doug was 13. The Mustang was no longer running due to a blown engine, so the Kielians were able to persuade their neighbors to part with the car for $25. Then the boys dragged it home and turned it into a summer project.

It didn’t matter that Doug and his teenage brothers, Kevin and Steve, had never fixed a car before.

“We bought a V-8 and a complete interior and transmission from Martin’s Salvage Yard, which became my treasure trove,” Kielian said. “We learned a lot about body and paint work at that young age. We read books. We went to Kmart and bought body fill and primer. We just taught ourselves. And we paid a body shop $40 to paint it for us one Saturday.

“We drove the car to school – I guess I was too young to drive, so I rode along. Our whole intention was to fix it and sell it, and I can remember the day it sold. It was Super Bowl Sunday in 1977; the Denver Broncos were playing in the game. We actually made some money – we sold it for over $2,000 – and from that point on I was intrigued by body work.”

It wasn’t long before Kielian was working on other people’s cars. After his sister was involved in a fender bender, Kielian did all of the repair work. His father negotiated with the insurance adjuster and the company wrote the check to “Doug’s Auto Body.”

“I remember seeing that car and thinking, ‘That’s cool,’ ” Kielian said. “I just have a passion for straightening wrinkled sheet metal. It came naturally.”

Kielian tolerated high school, enjoyed football and loved cars. Three months before graduation, he turned down football scholarship offers and, along with a friend, opened his first body shop. The partnership didn’t survive, but Kielian’s passion for body work did. He later owned his own shop and worked at a Ford dealership before moving to Lincoln. Kraft Auto Body opened there in January of 1990.

“The word ‘restoration’ wasn’t even really used then, unless you were working on a Model T,” Kielian said. “We just fixed older cars. We didn’t look at it as restoration.”

Kielian drew local attention for making some creative modifications to a 1989 Mustang GT, and word travelled fast. It wasn’t long before work began to roll in.

“I immediately knew I needed more help,” he said. “So I asked my delivery guy, ‘Do you know anyone who might like to help out?’ And he said, ‘I know just the guy.’ ”

Terry Worrick was that guy. A farm kid as interested in cars as Kielian had been as a youth, Worrick joined Kielian and ended up working for him for more than seven years.

“They’ve kind of come in one at a time,” Kielian said of his trainees. “Most of the guys I end up with come in looking for parts and we’ll start talking. I’ll look over at my wife (Stephanie) and she’ll nod ‘Go ahead,’ and then I’ll ask, ‘Ever think about working on cars?’ Most of them are 18, 19 – just out of high school. Some come in looking for a job, and I’ll say, ‘There aren’t any jobs here, only opportunities.’ ”

Kielian said he enjoys helping young car enthusiasts and sees real value in sharing knowledge about the hobby.

“My whole mission is to inspire young talent to go out and own their own business someday,” he said. “It’s about passing on what I know. I love restoring cars, but I won’t be able to do this forever. So I would love to be able to take a car to someone that I taught – someone who does things the way I do.”

Odds are that, having taught 55 automotive students in 19 years, Kielian has impacted the hobby – and the lives of those young men – more than he knows. He takes satisfaction in that, even though he admits his efforts weren’t exactly noble early on.

“I just needed the help,” he said. “But looking back and seeing some of them go on to work in the industry, I think, ‘Wow, these guys are influencing the hobby.’ There’s a lot of pride in that. I had a parent write me a letter once, and she said, ‘It does a mother’s heart good to know that you are taking an interest in my son.’ Yes, it takes time and effort, but the reward is huge – for me and for them.”

And the collector car hobby.

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