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Health issues end an auto repair era

When Tom and Nancy Getchell started an automotive repair business, T&N Auto Repair, in a two-stall garage on Avenue B, they did so with an understanding: they'd offer fair prices and honesty for all customers.

"And that's the way it's worked for 25 years," Nancy said this week, just days after the shop closed for good on March 10.

The reason for the end is tragic: Tom, 57, has terminal late-stage brain cancer in the form of two tumors. Thirty-one days of radiation earlier this winter was aimed to stop their growth and give Tom a better quality of life for his remaining time.

On the final day in business last Friday, Tom and a friend were found outside, taking down the painted aluminum sign that marked the business all these years. Inside the shop, an older Ford Ranger needing its control arm replaced was raised on a lift. There were a handful of jobs still scheduled on a board, outlining work Tom planned to finish that would take him into this week.

"It's hard right now, because my memory is getting worse," Tom said. "When your brain does that, you get angry at everything you do, and that's no way to run a business."

It's been an emotional and difficult time for the family, which had overcome Tom's previous bout with throat cancer five years ago. That episode cost him his larynx, forcing him to use an adaptive electronic device, an electrolarynx, that produces sound and creates his voice.

Doug Leno, 72, of Cloquet, and Mark Sheff, Tom's brother-in-law, milled around the shop last week, helping pack and organize.

"Great guy," Leno said of Tom. "He'll bend over backwards for you."

Sheff concurred, recalling that when the shop opened it was Nancy running the office while Tom wrenched on vehicles just a few feet away.

"It'll be better for him," Sheff said. "He's been wanting to retire for a while."

Nancy's daughter, Lisa Dahl, described the onset of Tom's brain cancer in a GoFundMe post aimed at raising money to help the family cover medical costs - gofundme.com/f/help-tom-getchell. Tom collapsed outside the shop last November.

"That is where his journey with his illness began," Dahl wrote. "I am asking for help so Tom can live out the rest of his days comfortably and enjoy the time he has left with his loved ones."

Tom recalled the seizure and others that followed. The first time, he thought maybe he was dizzy from exhaust fumes and stumbled outside for fresh air.

"One of the girls over at the county (building) found me lying out in the street," Tom said.

He was later diagnosed with glioblastoma. His tumors are inoperable, family said, and he's been given roughly a year to a year-and-a-half to live, Nancy said, provided the growth of the tumors was arrested by the radiation. Tom will find out more within the month when he's scheduled for his next brain scan.

"Cancer itself isn't just the battle," Nancy said. "It's all of the emotions that go with it."

Nancy and Tom met after they'd both started their own families. He brought four children into the marriage and she brought three.

They met because of a car battery, which offers insight on how they ran the business.

"It all went from there - all over a battery," Nancy said.

She was a few minutes late to a bartending shift, and needed a new battery installed. A local garage did the installation after hours, charging her $400. When Tom heard an exasperated Nancy tell the story, he drove her car to the mechanic and got back three-quarters of the original price of the work.

"I found out the hard way (that) women get screwed over by many businesses, and one happens to be the automotive business," she said. "I made him promise never to screw anybody over, especially a woman, and he said, 'OK.'"

Tom was known for providing discounted and even pro bono work to those who had few resources but a need for a good set of wheels.

"Tommy Getchell has been my mechanic since as far back as I can remember, and he's always bent over backwards to help me," said Cloquet resident Linda Erickson. "When I was in a poor way, he even did the car work for me for free. He's a great humanitarian and a very nice man."

Getchell reflected on his generosity.

"I try to be nice to all my customers," he said. "There's people that don't have that kind of money and I try to help them out a little bit. I've been doing that for years."

The business ends having built a strong word-of-mouth following, with customers from as far away as Minneapolis.

Tom was eager for his next scan at the end of the month. He's planning to be as active as possible, while knowing things are only going to get harder.

"It'd be nice to do some fishing," he said. "With a business, you don't get to do stuff like that all the time."

The couple lives on Ninth Street, just a few blocks from the shop, which, for now, will stay in the family, even as it closes.

Nancy, 70, said everything's been hard for the couple. They've got a modest nest egg, but it's being raided by medical bills. They're hoping Social Security Disability Insurance can help, though even accelerated, in a case like Tom's, it's a tedious process.

"You work all your lives to get to a happy point and this happens," she said. "You've got to hit rock bottom before anyone will (do) anything. It's frustrating."

She and the family hope to make life as comfortable as possible for Tom. His affairs are in order and funeral arrangements have been made, she said.

Nancy encouraged friends to stop by the house. "Pop over and see him."