ALBION — He practically grew up here. Then he said he’d never come back.
And now 53 years later, Duane Leatherman, 71, is finally calling it quits at Leatherman’s Body Shop in Albion.
Leatherman’s last day will be a celebration open to the public at the body shop from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on June 1.
“I actually retired at 67, but I never felt like doing it,” he said. “I’m looking forward to it now. I’ve got other things I want to do before it’s all over. And I’ve got a little granddaughter I want to spend more time with.”
Duane also said he wants to spend more time visiting at his son Anthony Michael’s home in Fishers. There are also car shows he wants to attend and his 1971 Mustang Mach 1 which needs work.
There has been a Leatherman-operated business at the S.R. 8 location since 1948 when Duane’s father and his father’s brothers started a Ford-Studebaker dealership following World War II, building it literally themselves. And that run isn’t going to end — Duane’s son Tommy is running operations now.
Duane and his cousins practically grew up at the dealership. Time with their fathers meant time where the spent the bulk of their time — at the dealership.
“They worked their tails off,” Duane said. “If we wanted to spend time with our dads, we had to come to the shop.”
They also spent a lot of time at the salvage yard which was adjacent to the body shop. Many, many youngsters learned to drive back in the area, Duane said.
There was another perk to access to the salvage yard.
“We could have any car we wanted, if we could get it running,” Duane said. “We had to fix the cars ourselves.”
In that way, all the young cousins learned a valuable lesson about doing for yourself, as well as the value of hard work.
“We were taught this is what you’ve got to do,” Duane said. “I did my first paint job when I was 14.”
When he joined the Navy in 1969, Duane said he’d had enough of working on cars, and had enough of Albion in general. He vowed he would never return.
“I said I was never going to do body work again,” he said. “When I was in the service, it didn’t take me long to realize the little town of Albion was a pretty nice place.”
Including a three-year stint with the Navy Reserves, Duane served from 1969-1976.
In the mid-1970s, Duane’s father sold his part of the dealership. By that time, Duane had re-committed himself to his home town — and to helping people get their vehicles fixed.
He moved the small, two-car garage that was located at the parsonage of the Wesleyan church in town to the north of the original building. That became his body shop.
In 1976, he added towing to the services his company provided.
“The towing company that was here was getting out of it,” Duane said. “It was a business decision.”
And a real life changer. A towing service is a 24-hours-a-day, 7-days-a-week proposition.
Never a good sleeper, Duane said the middle-of-the-night callouts didn’t really bother him, but having to work on holidays was difficult.
He credits his wife, Nona, with being supportive.
“I don’t know how many ladies would put with so many late nights getting called out,” Duane said. “I’m fortunate to have a good family.”
Nona has also been involved with the business, and will stay active as Tommy starts to run things.
As youngsters, sons Tommy and Anthony Michael also were involved at the body shop and with the wrecker service, following in the footsteps of their father.
Duane started out by sweeping the shop. His sons started the same way.
The body shop was a big player in local racing. Duane occasionally drove, but was more comfortable in the pits.
“I had more fun fixing them and trying to figure out how to make them go a little faster,” Duane said.
Duane insists his parents taught him to give back, to be a part of the community not just a business in the community.
Even though his father, Everett, was a very busy man, he still found time to become a Scout leader when Duane was young. Duane followed suit and became a Scout leader himself, a move he described as selfish.
“I was greedy,” he said. “It made me take more time with my two boys. It was well worth the extra time.”
Tommy remembers during the annual week-long Scouting camp, Duane would either close up the business or find someone to help run in that week. A father who was busier than most, a father who was on call 24-hours a day, including holidays, still managed to make time for family.
“Whatever we had — he was there,” Tommy said.
Duane even stayed involved in Scouting for a couple of years after his sons’ time in the organization had passed, the desire to give still there.
“It goes back to my parents and uncles and aunts,” he said of that drive.
Serving others? It’s in his blood.
“He’s always giving back,” Nona said. “Community is important to him, too.”
And the community has been good to Duane and his business, which has expanded several times over the years.
Approximately 25 years ago, he fell at the shop and broke his back.
“I don’t think my wife had to cook a meal for three weeks,” Duane said. “People know each other. They’d do anything to help you.”
He was unable to stand without putting on a cumbersome brace that ran from his hips to his under arms. He made it at home for three weeks before he figured out a way he could get to the shop.
“You can only watch so much TV,” he said. “I’d had enough of that house.”
While he was healing, the business stayed afloat because of the good people who worked for him.
“I’ve been so fortunate to have such good people work for us,” he said.