It was built before their parents were born, but the lessons ingrained in each meticulously, beautifully-restored curve of a 1951 Chevy Deluxe could carry a group of Kilgore College students into their careers.
Six months ago, the old green car was showing its age – rusted and worn, due for hard-earned retirement – but the dedicated efforts of 18 students under the direction of instructor Joel Laws breathed new life into the vintage vehicle. Polished chrome and a crisp new paint job glittered in the morning sun as Gladewater Police Chief Rob Vine drove it away from KC’s Automotive Body Repair Building Friday.
As he gazed proudly at the resurrected classic, Vine was already miles down the road, imagining the reactions of residents and visitors to the Antique Capital of East Texas.
“I think it’s just the character. It’s the clean lines. It’s the simplicity of a bygone era. To me, it symbolizes everything that law enforcement used to be,” he said. “It’s really going to augment our city and our downtown’s antique district.”
It won’t be a museum piece, it’s going on the beat. In addition to parades and other special events, the '51 Chevy will be put into regular service one Saturday each month in downtown Gladewater, a patrol officer in a vintage uniform behind the wheel.
When they handed over the car and keys to Laws and his students last fall, “We knew what we wanted,” Vine said. The interior was completed, but the exterior was in dire of need of TLC. “We didn’t know the opportunity we were providing the students to work on this vehicle.”
The City of Gladewater gained a sleek piece of art-in-motion. The students gained a litany of skills in turning a rusting hulk into a masterwork.
“We had a car before. Because of Kilgore College and the students, we have a police car now.”
According to KC President Brenda Kays, the restored patrol vehicle becomes living proof of the benefit of collaborative partnerships between Kilgore College and other institutions for the sake of area students.
It’s a project that could have been handed over to professionals, putting their long-learned skills and experience to the test, but it’s one that was entrusted to the auto aficionados of tomorrow who learned valuable lessons along the way.
“Those are the kinds of skills that these students, who did such a beautiful job, are going to be able to take into the workforce,” Kays said.
The classic car is a tangible item, Laws said, and the craft that made it a reality has tangible benefits as well. The same expertise, the same materials, the same process can be applied to aircraft, marine vehicles and a litany of other projects.
“You’ve opened yourself into a whole world of potential work,” he added. “I’m glad these guys can see that. You see the light come on.”
The rust holes were a challenge, Kilgore High School graduate Zach Dent admitted. A sophomore in Laws’ program, he said the step-by-step repairs – cutting, reducing, welding, restoring – took their fair share of time.
“It’s been a while,” Dent said. “To see it come together, because it was all taken apart piece by piece, one at a time … it all looks a lot better than what it did, I can promise you that.”
Longview resident Bronte Elder’s ready to put Laws’ lessons to work again.
“He’s taught us the ins and outs of auto body repair,” the sophomore said, and the students have something to show for it: “It’s giving back to East Texas. That’s what it’s all about. It’s representing everybody.”
All the students came together to make it happen, said Brittany Casanova of Dallas, and their teamwork shows in the completed product, finally finished and now home in Gladewater.
“It’s a whole other type of euphoria,” she concluded. “Awesome.”