It was 1974, and Jeri Mondloch had finally found it: a blue two-door 1954 Chevy Bel Air.
There was a scare involving some teenager who snagged the car first, but it turned out the kid's eyes were bigger than his checking account. A month and $800 later, it was in the Mondlochs' hands. Jeri had searched for the car as a Father's Day gift to her husband, Gene.
The '54 Chevy was a collectible car in its own right, but it meant something more to Gene. In 1956 or so, he had bought and cherished a turquoise '54 Bel Air. By 1959, he was engaged to Jeri and they agreed they only needed one car. His car sold right away, so they kept hers.
Dad always regretted the sale, his son Arnie said, which led to his Mom's successful search for its replacement.
Even then, the hunt wasn’t over. The car needed work, so Gene and his son combed over junkyards for parts. But the real thrills came from finding a factory original part, never installed in a car, Arnie said.
“That was like finding treasure,” he said.
In the '70s, the family lived in Mankato and Gene was a recruiter for the National Guard. He would drive the ’54 Chevy to high schools, where it pulled in high school boys by the dozens to hear about their opportunities in the armed forces.
A few years later, in 1978, Gene was killed in a car accident, in a different vehicle. He was on the way home from a funeral atin St. James when he was hit by a semi and died at the scene. He was 42.
The car was put into storage, and Arnie drove it to the Seattle area when he moved there, in 1988. “I was thinking when I had a son we’d relive the experience,” he said.
Three daughters came instead, and none of them was particularly interested in the old car.
So it has been in a garage since. Or at least that’s what his family thought when they visited for a reunion in July.
On a pretext, Arnie invited the family over to his home, where they found a screened-off section of the driveway. Their Mom, Jeri, was there, too, and her reaction justified all the time and money Arnie spent on his secret restoration project.
“I have never heard her cry and wail. She just lost it, so we all did,” said Deb Nelson, a sister of Arnie who lives in Ham Lake. “We were all so touched that he would do that.”
Jeri said it was the color, the precise shade of robin's egg blue, that cinched it. It was perfect. The replacement Chevy — the one she helped buy in 1974 — had a slightly darker, sky-blue shade. But the restoration included a new paint scheme, and Jeri instantly recognized the Chevy that she met her husband in. The memory was so indelible, she said, that she almost expected Gene to hop out of the car.
The restoration was as painstaking and expensive as it was successful. Two weeks after the reunion, the car won first place in its category in a nationally sanctioned judging competition.
Arnie learned something about his parents, too.
His mother, who now lives in St. Peter, wrote him a letter describing her first memory of the car. She was walking home when Gene pulled over in the fancy Bel Air and offered her a ride home, which she took. He eventually proposed to her in that car.
This story has been edited to reflect the following correction:
A story on page A1 Monday about the restoration of a 1954 Chevy contained errors. Gene Mondloch was on his way home from a funeral in St. James, not Mankato. Also, he was 42 when he died, not 43. Finally, the Chevy was driven to Seattle in 1988, not 1984.