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Family honors son, restores his favorite Jeep

The youthful spirit of Sean Coniff will be parading proudly in Central Point during the annual DARE to Cruise on Saturday.

It will be in the form of a 1955 Willys Jeep that Coniff, a Crater High School senior who died two weeks short of his 1998 graduation, had dreamed of building into a show stopper.

That Jeep was in parts all over the garage ' he was working on it when he was killed, said his father, Pat Coniff. We were going to pay for the wiring for the Jeep as a graduation present.

Sean, an Eagle Scout who had just turned 19, was killed in a May 18 wreck that year while he was a passenger in a 1956 Ford pickup truck driven by his best friend, who was arrested for drunken driving in the incident.

— Pat and his wife, Brenda, and their four other children were devastated by their loss. They also understood the anguish it had caused his best friend.

We didn't do anything for a couple of months, Pat Coniff recalled. But my wife found a list of all the parts Sean had for the Jeep. The family just looked at each other and my wife said, 'We need to finish the Jeep.'

Sean's parents and siblings ' Heather, Alicia, Amber and Shea ' rolled up their sleeves and went to work on reassembling the parts Sean, the middle child, had sanded down to remove rust in preparation for painting.

Never mind they didn't know the first thing about restoring the Jeep. They had Alicia's husband, Scott Smith, at their side. He is a mechanic.

In addition to the list of parts, they had a photograph of a Jeep from a popular 4x4 magazine, an image that Sean had told a friend his Jeep would reflect when he was done with it.

A year and a half later they finished the labor of love.

There is a lot of cleansing there, Pat Coniff said of the cathartic work. Everybody in the family had a finger on that Jeep.

Brenda agreed.

Rebuilding that Jeep was very healing for us, she said. At first it was very difficult because we would cry.

But they knew it had been an important part in young Sean's life, she said.

His parents described him as a typical youngster hailing from the region who played in Little League, served as an altar boy in church, lettered in sports, liked motorcycles and off-road vehicles, hunted and fly-fished, was in the 4-H and Future Farmers of America and was awarded the Order of the Arrow in Boy Scouts.

His peers in school also chose him to serve as one of their counselors, his father said.

He always had goals, his mother said. He wanted to go to college. He wanted a family. He worked hard but played hard. He was a great kid.

To her, the rebuilt Jeep represents one of the goals Sean planned to accomplish.

We feel it's Sean's legacy, she said. I know his spirit is in there. The Jeep is something tangible we can touch that was his.

When they were done, the Willys didn't resemble the original GI standard with the olive drab paint and four-banger engine.

The Jeep has a 1974 CJ-5 body and a 327-cubic-inch V-8 along with a newer 4-speed transmission.

The color is big bad orange, his father said of the Jeep, which won a trophy at the annual Medford Cruise this summer. It's a Jeep with an attitude.

It's got a lot of aluminum that is highly polished, he added. We keep it looking like chrome.

It's also a vehicle that attracts attention, particularly among teenagers, he said.

The Jeep is like a magnet for young people, he said. We tell them the story and pass on Sean's legacy. We tell them to be careful out there.

Although his family had always supported the DARE program to reduce drug and alcohol abuse, it became more involved in the effort after Sean's death, he said.

Once the Jeep was finished, we wanted to do what we could to help, he said.

The Jeep demonstrates what young people can accomplish if they set their goals high and avoid the pitfalls of drug or alcohol abuse, Brenda said.

We love DARE because it helps young people, she said. It's so wonderful when a boy or a young man comes up to the Jeep and we can tell them about it and setting goals. You have to have goals in life.

The Jeep represents Sean's goal of having the nicest in the whole valley, she said.

I feel it is, she said. I'm sure Sean feels that way, too.

Brenda Coniff holds a picture of her son Sean, with his Jeep in the background. Surrounding her, from left, are Sean?s siblings Alicia Smith (holding 1-year-old daughter Saige), Amber Helbig, Shea Coniff and Heather Coniff. Mail Tribune / Jim Craven - Mail Tribune Jim Craven