Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Dedicated to Randy, a southern Minnesota automotive machinist for 43 years August 2, 2022

Randy at work in the automotive machine shop where he was employed for nearly 39 years until last Friday. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

HE REBUILT HIS FIRST ENGINE, acquired for $25 from a classmate, nearly 50 years ago while a senior at Healy High School in Pierz. He recalls the deconstructed engine as a bit of a mess. But Randy was up to the challenge and successfully rebuilt the engine for his first car, a 1964 Chevy.

One load of machine shop equipment ready to transport from Northfield to the new owner’s garage Monday afternoon. (Copyrighted August 1, 2022, photo by Randy Helbling)

Fast forward to July 29, 2022. This past Friday, Randy clocked out of the job he’s held for the past 38 years and 10 months as an automotive machinist at a southern Minnesota auto parts store. A corporation purchased the business in early May and immediately announced plans to close the profitable and successful machine shop by the end of August. Closure came a month earlier with sale of the machine shop equipment.

Friday evening part of our family gathered at 10,000 Drops Distillery in Faribault to honor Randy for a life-long career with roots in that central Minnesota high school small engines shop class. He was, Randy notes, the only student to use the valve and seat grinder in one entire school year.

Today he’s an expert in his trade with a technical school education in auto mechanics and auto parts management but, more importantly, with a brief mentorship followed by decades of experience as an automotive machinist. Much sought after. And, always, always booked months out with work.

Before and after cylinder head cleaning process. (Photo by Randy Helbling)

I asked Randy to make a list of all the machine shop work he’s done since entering that field in 1979 after several years working as an auto parts counter person. I handed him a legal-sized envelope, recycled as notepaper. He sat on the end of the couch writing for the longest time in block print that is almost too small for me to read. He filled both sides of that envelope.

Here’s his list:

  • Resurface brake drums, rotors, flywheels, cylinder heads, manifolds, engine blocks and pressure plates.
  • Complete valve jobs: includes replacing valve guides, valve seats, valves and springs.
  • Repair cracked heads and blocks.
  • Cylinder reboring, honing and resleeving.
  • Pressure testing heads or magnetic crack inspection.
  • Removing broken bolts, E-Z outs, taps and drill bits.
  • Resizing connecting rods and fitting piston pin bushings to within .0001 of an inch.
  • Cleaning, degreasing cylinder heads, blocks and various engine parts and other parts for industry.
  • Press work with a 50-ton press: pressing U-joints, wheel bearings, front wheel drive and rear wheel drive axle shafts, ring and pinion bearings, forklift wheels and other items needing to be pressed apart or together.
  • Rebuild drive shafts with constant velocity U-joints.
  • Polish crankshafts.
  • Repair radiators.
  • Reline brake shoes.

Impressed yet? I am and so are the thousands of customers who came to Randy for their automotive machining needs. Some stopped by on Friday to thank him, to express their dismay at his unexpected job loss. Randy was reliable, incredibly skilled, excelling in his craft. Customers included car and farm implement dealerships, farmers, garages, marinas, golf courses, the Harley dealer, grain elevators, construction companies, local canning and food companies and other industries, classic car and vintage tractor collectors, do-it-yourselfers and city, county and school maintenance departments, and probably some I missed in this list.

Work piles up in the automotive machine shop. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

He’s repaired almost everything except airplanes and locomotives. Buses? Check. Boats? Check. Semis? Check. Tractors? Check. Motorcycles? Check. Trucks? Check. Cars? Check. Vans? Check. Lawnmowers? Check. Snowmobiles? Check. Skid loaders? Check. Forklifts? Check. Snowblowers? Check. Vintage tractors? Check. Classic cars? Check.

It all started back in high school with that rebuilt engine for a 1964 Chevy, today a classic car Randy wishes he still owned. Today he owns a history as a hardworking and dedicated automotive machinist who truly was among the best, and remaining few, in his field here in southern Minnesota.

Measuring a cylinder bore. (Photo by Randy Helbling)

I asked Randy what skills he needed to be a successful automotive machinist. He thought for a moment and then said, “knowing how an engine might perform when the work is completed.” I will attest to his knowledge. He can listen to an engine and often immediately diagnose a problem. Yes, he’s that good. An aptitude for math and being detail-oriented are also necessities.

I’m proud of my husband, for how he’s served southern Minnesota and beyond (he had a repeat customer from Sioux Falls, SD). He’s been a real asset to the area considering all of the automotive machining he’s done since 1979. His last day on the job came with mixed emotions. It’s not easy losing your job unexpectedly after 39 years. Randy teared up when talking about the customers who popped in on Friday to thank him. And when our son called from Indiana while we were at the distillery, I know that touched him, too.

From Randy’s office/shop. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2022)

In the end, he carried his “office” home in a small cardboard box filled with professional plaques, business cards, a job quote…and a sheaf of carbon paper. Randy carries with him, too, the memory of 43 years of working in the automotive field, of interacting with customers, of knowing he has always, always, done his best.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Photos courtesy of Randy Helbling


38 Responses to “Dedicated to Randy, a southern Minnesota automotive machinist for 43 years”

  1. This is just hearbreaking, Audrey. I believe that with your love and support and Randy’s experience and work ethic, he will thrive during this next phase of his life. Whatever that might be. Sending Love and prayers. ❤

  2. Sandra Says:

    What a tribute! Someone said, when one door closes, another opens. In the past 20 yrs. since I retired, with so many unplanned, of all ages, I’ve seen that to be true. The labor market is in dire straits, especially for skill and knowledge and humanity. I will pray if Randy doesn’t want it to be, your story is not over.

  3. beth Says:

    I don’t even have enough words for this. what a lovely tribute to a brilliant and skilled man who gave it his all, and was recognized by so many for what he had and what he gave. your love and admiration for him comes through and I hope he knows how much he meant to so many. a terrible loss to the greater community. I so admire this kind of person.

  4. Beth Ann Says:

    It is so wonderful to know someone who has true pride in his work and who goes above and beyond to do what is best for customers. Thank you, Randy, for your work ethic and love of doing a difficult job. Praying the transition ahead is easy and that you can joy and meaning in what’s ahead!

  5. Bernadette Arlene Thomasy Says:

    Randy speaks an entirely foreign language in his work as a machinist but you, Audrey, capture the heart and soul of his 39 amazing years doing well what he does best. What a good feeling to have your support and admiration as did his friends and customers over the years. So glad you shared Randy’s amazing accomplishments.

  6. What opportunities could come his way… that experience is always in high demand! How about teaching a young person his skill sets?
    Best wishes on this new journey.

    • That’s the plan, to teach these skills. But it takes decades of work to reach the skill level Randy is at. He is mostly self-taught with an aptitude toward doing this type of skilled work.

      • I know. My Dad depended on skill sets like Randy’s and believe me, I heard all about how much it costed in time and extra money if they messed it up! My Dad took his machine work on not to guys who knew what they were doing! Better to pay the cost in gas than to pay for a job that was not done well and costed even more in equipment repairs. Hopefully Randy will find his niche in this new normal.

      • Your dad was wise to take his work to the most skilled in the craft. Randy is incredibly talented and his customers knew it, and then told others.

  7. Jenny Woldum Says:

    This is so kind and inspiring, Audrey. Even though I hardly know half of those terms Randy used, I can appreciate his expertise. I believe he gained much of his confidence in his field from you, his supportive partner, for so many years. Blessings to your family.

  8. VIVIAN Says:

    So proud of my brother. He is gifted, as are you. So happy you were able to put this in writing! You are a remarkable twosome!! Though this has been an incredibly difficult time for you, both of you have more lives to touch. Onward!!

  9. Rosie Says:

    What a lovely and loving tribute. The skills he has are remarkable and what he could teach others is invaluable. No matter what the future brings he will continue to touch lives and I am so thankful that he has your love and support.

  10. Norma Says:

    Randy’s talent, and dedication to that talent, is so desperately needed. I feel that his reputation will follow him, and I believe he will succeed in his beloved work even more. I know that what he, and you, are going through at this time is devastating, but I truly believe that he will be even more successful than he has been. Keep the faith!

  11. Colleen Hondl Gengler Says:

    Best wishes to Randy and you as well. I hope that he can find another way to use his skills. It’s not the way you both wanted to go but hopefully there is a new and productive path in his future. I appreciated the list of what he did and what he worked on. Impressive and eye opening!

    • “Impressive and eye-opening” is one of the reasons I shared that list and then that photo of one semi flatbed of equipment. They are on day three of loading and transporting equipment from the machine shop. The list, the photos, the questions I asked Randy I hope convey the depth of his knowledge and skillset. The average person didn’t really understand what he did and often mistook his work as that of a garage mechanic. No, he was a specialist in automotive machining.

  12. Randy Says:

    Thank you, Audrey for your kind words. And thank you to all of your blog readers for the wonderful comments.

  13. Kudos to Randy, I hope that this is not the end, but a beginning to something well deserved.

  14. Valerie Says:

    What a wonderful tribute to a wonderful man. You both have remarkable talents. I pray blessings for you both, for the next chapter…

  15. Reblogged this on Mirror Neurons and commented:
    In a throwaway world here is a blog post about someone who would rather rebuild things than send them to the landfill. Randy’s contribution to the world should be measured not only in the number and variety of parts he’s rebuilt but also in the number of parts he has saved from the trash heap.

  16. In a throwaway world, Randy stands as a man who would rather rebuild something than send it to the landfill. His contribution to society should be measured not only in the number and variety of parts he has rebuilt but also in the number of parts and engines he has saved from the ever-growing pile of trash the world is accumulating.

  17. Jackie Hemmer Says:

    I read your post and think… Randy is a man of integrity and skill, not just someone who works to “work” and pay the bills, but a man who loves what he does! It’s hard to leave a job that’s been part of your life for so many years, even harder when it wasnt his plan I’m sure his customers are having a hard time too.

    Some encouragement for you both…. When Rick was let go from IBM because of “downsizing”, it didnt feel good, it wasnt his choice but the blessing that we soon began to see became many, it opened his eyes to more opportunites in life. I know for certain that you and Randy will begin to see these blessing as well, Sometimes it takes a bit to see all that God had stategically planned.
    Please tell Randy Congratulations from Rick and I.

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