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Essentially Ashland

Crunch time in

Last month, I dropped by South Valley Auto Body and Repair at 246 A St., where Big Blue, my 1972 Chevy Blazer, was getting a facelift. On the July 3, Big Blue got tagged while parked in front of my house, the result looking as though I was opening a wrecking yard at 882 B St.

Though towed back to the curb, it hung out like a pheasant curing as seen in the made-for-television movie of Shogun. The difference is in the movie a gardener loses his head for removing the putrid bird. In the case of my Blazer it took 21 days to settle with the insurance company, during which the vehicle sat unmoved, unloved and unmistakably mine.

The time was perfect, for East Main Street was being repaved and the detour of arterial load of traffic was shunted in front of my house. Whenever I deigned to walk outside I was greeted by a hoot of horns and a flagging of palms &

133; everyone wanted to know what happened. Within minutes of the &


and I use the term lightly and incorrectly, I called Dennis Donnelly at South Body Auto Body. He was over in a jiffy and I watched like Anjin-san from my porch as my hapless chunk of iron rolled around the corner and down to the body shop for some much-needed attention in the form of frame straightening, new body parts, dent removal, bumper bumping, winch winding, trim touches and a new coat of paint. Sounds pretty much like my annual physical, except for the tail pipe inspection, which is not required at South Valley Auto Body.

— — —

Auto Body craftsman Dennis Donnelly stands next — to the renovated Big Blue.

Submitted photo

Dennis and his wife, Darlene, just celebrated their 31st wedding anniversary. They moved to Ashland in 1978 from Anaheim, Calif., determined to break away from the urban experience as they settled into their 10 acres on Cove Road, some seven miles up the road now called Dead Indian Memorial Road. While the acreage felt liberating, Dennis, despite his great abilities dealing with the restoration of cars, found it difficult finding a job &

still a common theme in Ashland today. In desperation, he bucked hay for $2 an hour, never turning down a job as he searched for an opening in what he did best.

From 1980 to 1984 Dennis worked in the body shop at a local car dealership. He felt sure that he would be advanced in short order, but promotion there was based on seniority, even if you had no experience in the new job. A salesman with no experience got the body shop manager&

s position. When he moved on another salesman slipped on in. Realizing that the balloon inflator had three years seniority made Dennis begin to look elsewhere, lest the new office manager wear size 20 shoes, sport a big red rubber nose and make balloon animals in his office all day.

Dennis, at age 14, got the bug to fix cars when one of his five brothers gave him a 1953 VW Beetle to restore. His family and friends soon noticed that Dennis had a remarkable gift. When he couldn&

t find a part, he made one. By the time he got through with a restoration, the vehicle looked and ran better than new. He did this time and time again, proving that luck had nothing to do with it.

In 1984, Dennis partnered up with Vic Lafata and they opened up South Valley Enterprises in its current location. Within three months, Dennis was the sole owner and began a 21-year run doing automotive restoration, insurance collision repair, custom painting and detailing. He has an in-house paint mixing system and a unibody frame straightening rack. The rest is his obvious ingenuity.

His son, Wes, and two technicians constitute the balance of the work force. Darlene tends to the paperwork, which is a challenge in and of itself. The team arrives early and stays late, always eager to please their very loyal clientele. Word of mouth keeps Dennis and his family constantly busy.

Their most memorable project was the restoration of a 1967 Jaguar XKE, which arrived with chunks of the body missing and baskets of unorganized parts. In a show of determination, Dennis spent two years restoring the vehicle, this while waiting for and manufacturing missing parts. It ended up in showroom condition.

While walking around the property on several occasions I met several customers, all of which had nothing but praise for the operation and owners. Dennis is always quick to laugh and understanding when someone needs a little a little extra time to pay the bill.

Restoring a car is like solving a puzzle. Dennis is in it for the challenge and the opportunity to brighten the day of those that need his assistance.

I recently picked up Big Blue and marveled at the quality of the work devoted to it, this due to a husband and wife who fell in love with the Valley many years ago. It is these small family operations that make a huge difference in our increasingly sophisticated and sometimes detached Ashland.

Future columns will focus on various businesses as well as key individuals and events that will lead the charge from times past to lend perspective to the revival of Ashland. Send your favorite remembrances to: lance@journalist.com.