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