With his automobile service station in eastern Duluth closing Friday after six decades in the family, Tom Atkinson thought about what he’d want his last repair job to be.
“Hopefully, a brake job,” Atkinson, 66, said. “That’d be the simplest.”
Already this week, there would be no more oil changes at the Lester Park Skelly, since Atkinson had already disposed of his used oil storage tanks.
A large head-and-shoulder elk mount had been taken down from the wall and sold to a good home, too. It was a trophy from eight years ago, when Atkinson took a guided hunt in Idaho.
“That was once-in-a-lifetime for me,” Atkinson said, leaning back in a swivel chair. “It was the only two-week vacation I’ve had in 53 years.”
Atkinson met with the News Tribune earlier this week to discuss his last week on the job, and a career spent fixing vehicles.
“I learned everything from my father,” Atkinson said of the late Jim Atkinson, who had eight children with his late wife, Helen.
Jim was big, strong, and bluntly honest. He could gain compliance with a stern look, and all six boys in the family were required to try their hand at the family trade.
“When I was 15 years old, I was rebuilding an engine for a car I owned and I didn’t even have a driver’s license yet,” Atkinson said. “I caught on to that quicker than my brothers, and that’s why I stayed here.”
His father took over the Lester Park Skelly at 5930 E. Superior St. in 1964 — 10 years after it was first opened by Skelly Oil Co., of Tulsa, Oklahoma. A revolving door of operators ended with the Atkinsons, whose fair practices and skilled work became widely known throughout the area.
“I have customers coming from all over town,” Atkinson said. “I’ve got many from up the North Shore. I’m just extremely grateful for all the relationships I’ve had over the years, and the privilege of knowing a variety of people from different walks of life and different classes.”
Even in its final days, the shop was busy with foot traffic. Atkinson had to turn away a Cadillac he'd worked on for years, as some customers were surprised to learn he was calling it a career.
"It's going to ruin this corner," said Jerry Lawson, 81, of Lester Park.
"I keep hearing that," Atkinson said. "One of my customers said, 'You can't quit,' and I said, '53 years doesn't count as a quitter.'"
As Atkinson spoke, in came Herb Dillon.
“This is probably my longest continuous customer,” Atkinson said, welcoming Dillon.
“I had a ’64 Chevy Corvair that your dad started taking care of,” said Dillon, 73, of Lester Park, a retired emergency room trauma nurse.
“He and his dad were honest,” Dillon continued. “When I was gone for a year during Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm, Tom took care of my wife’s car without charge for that entire year.”
Atkinson explained his generosity.
“When you’re in business for yourself and you’re the boss, you can make that decision,” he said. “I was grateful I was in a position to help people.”
Lawson called Atkinson “second to none,” as a mechanic, and Bruce Lotti, 75, of nearby Duluth Township, referred to Atkinson as an old-school mechanic and the last of his breed.
“They’re parts changers now,” Lotti said, describing how modern cars and engines are so fraught with computer technology and encased in plastics that each model requires specialty tools instead of the universal wrenches and standard tools Atkinson employed to diagnose and correct problems.
“If there was something Tom couldn’t figure out, it had to be an electrical problem,” Lotti said.
Atkinson bought the business from his father in 2005, long after Skelly Oil had gone out of business.
“We just never changed the name of the business — and it’s too late now!” Atkinson joked.
He spent more than seven years working with a valued hired hand, Kris Zimmerman, who died at 43 in 2016 from a medical condition.
“Kris was such a loyal friend and co-worker, I had no desire to hire anybody else after he passed away,” Atkinson said.
As he neared the end, Atkinson began to notice his limits. It was getting harder to do the work by himself.
“I am ready to go,” he said.
He's been recommending his customers try East End Auto Repair on Jean Duluth Road, Complete Auto Repair Service on Howard Gnesen Road or AutoMedics in East Hillside.
"I know those guys are honest," Atkinson said. "I'm sure there are other good ones, too."
He’s sold the building and property to a real estate agent, and doesn’t know what’s in store for the location. In all likelihood, its years as a service station are over.
“There isn’t anybody else out here doing this anymore,” Atkinson said. “When I was a kid, there were at least a dozen full-service gas stations between here and 42nd Avenue East.”
Atkinson lives with his wife, Rita, in Proctor, and they have five adult children, 10 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
“I have no shortage of hobbies,” Atkinson said. “I shoot archery, rifle, pistol, shotgun. I like paddling my kayak. I like riding my bike. I like golfing, woodworking, photography and fishing.”
Outside the open doors of the Lester Park Skelly service bays, Atkinson had parked his fifth-wheel camper. Next week, he and his wife will load it and head to Arizona for five months. It’ll be his first prolonged retreat from the Northland in a lifetime.
“I don’t even know if I’m going to like Arizona,” Atkinson said, “but I know I’m not crazy about winter.”