Skip to main content

A gearhead, Tom Stephenson restored cars for family and friends


Melody Mercado   | Des Moines Register
play
Show Caption

When Tom Stephenson was stationed in England with the Air Force, he’d write letters to his girlfriend, Pat, describing the adventures he had building, rebuilding and racing Mini Coopers.

“I should have been more aware,” Pat said with a laugh. “So much of (the letters) was about cars and ‘I want to buy this car and buy that car to bring over.’”

A true labor of love, Tom worked on cars from the moment he could walk — until the moment he couldn’t anymore.

Tom died of COVID-19 on August 8 in Des Moines. He was 77.

Born in Minnesota in 1942, Tom grew up doing automotive bodywork on his dad’s wrecking yard.

After serving with distinction in the Air Force for five years, he married Pat in 1967 and started a family soon after.

In the late 1970s, the small clan moved to Pat’s family farm west of Cumming. From owning a NAPA auto parts store to dispatching with Amoco Motor Club to driving a truck cross country, Tom held many jobs and nearly all were related to automobiles — his biggest passion by far.  

Every vehicle the Stephenson family owned was a personal project for Tom, Pat said. He’d visit auto auctions or insurance lots, always on the lookout for a car that had potential.

“He didn’t care what the car looked like as long as the engine wasn’t damaged,” said Pat. “He saved us a lot of money on cars.”

Pat’s favorite restoration was a little Mazda fast back. Originally an “ugly orange color,” the car had been crushed during a rollover in the late 1960s, Pat said. Tom took it apart down to the frame, straightened out the body and built it back up, painting it a nice candy apply red. 

His son Michael’s preferred ride was the Mercury Cougar XR-7 that he spent senior year of college working on with his dad. From negotiating the price at a salvage yard to finishing the car off with some extravagant headlights, father and son worked on it “piece by piece,” Michael said.

With friends, Tom spent hours tweaking figure eight race cars for competition at the Warren County Speedway — often sharing a beer and a laugh after they put their wrenches down.

Beyond cars, Tom was a Vikings and Twins fan, finding time to watch games whenever he could.

A diagnosis with Lewy Body Dementia in 2015 limited his mobility, but Tom never lost his infectious smile, boisterous laugh or contagious spirit.  

In 2017, Tom and Pat celebrated the 50th wedding anniversary, a favorite family memory.

Today, reminders of Tom are strewn around the couples’ home. In Pat's driveway sits a 1960 Ford pickup. In the barn, a 1940 Chevy, which Tom bought from an old classmate at his 50th class reunion in Detroit Lakes, Minnesota.

Michael is now hoping to complete the projects — dedicating himself to finishing these few final restores in honor of his dad.

This story is part of the Iowa Mourns series, a collection of remembrances about Iowans who lost their lives to COVID-19. If you've lost a loved one to COVID-19 in Iowa, let us know by filling out this form or emailing Iowa Columnist Courtney Crowder at ccrowder@dmreg.com.

Iowans lost to COVID-19

The following are deaths from COVID-19 were added in the past week to our list of more than 500 Iowans who have died from the disease, found at DesMoinesRegister.com/IowaMourns.

Leora Andorf, 92, Cedar Falls. Contributed her finest homegrown plants to organizations for annual plant sales.

Larry Ball Sr., 78, Des Moines. Fielded cars from 1985 to 1995 in the 410 division at Knoxville Raceway and other tracks throughout the Midwest under Ball Racing, Inc.

Ronald "Beans" Behrends, 86, Monticello. Helped bring the DuTrac Credit Union to Monticello, and later worked on its board.

Delores Block, 91, Cedar Rapids. Worked as church secretary at Bethany Lutheran Church for two decades.

Mary Ann Bradford, 91, Iowa City. Held  lifelong passions for birds, dachshunds and women's rights.

Walter Budde Jr., PhD, 95, Iowa City. World-renowned in peroxygen chemistry, especially the formation of peroxyacids and their use for the synthesis of epoxides.

Thomas Cross, 82, Ankeny. Loved flying and obtained a pilot's license.

Margaret "Peggy" Demke, 87, South Sioux City. Always cheered on the Cornhuskers and Notre Dame.

Mary "Lorraine" Dunne, 91, Council Bluffs. Worked as director of the Lewis Central School Food Service Program.

Mary Gorsh, 84, Iowa City. Sang as a member of the Sweet Adelines for years.

Marina Harbit, 88, Iowa City. Met her husband as a telephone switchboard operator at the University of Iowa.

Clarence "Jack" Hird, 100, Farley. Established the Senior Citizen Meal Sites of Farley and Epworth, setting up the weekly meal service and delivering meals to people who couldn't leave the house.

Donald Husted, 77, Davenport. Drank chocolate malts with his brother Frank as they drove around the Quad Cities in Frank's vintage Camaro.

Everett Johnson, 82, Boone. Grew up surrounded by music, which eventually led to his role as Executive Secretary of the Iowa High School Music Association.

Barbara Jones, 56, Monticello. Sold her baked goods, including her famous monster cookies, at the Hiawatha Farmers Market. 

Alice Kauten, 73, Jesup. Taught and councilled students in New Hampton and Jesup.

Mary Kline, 93, Chariton. Moved from Pennsylvania to Iowa as a child, where she remained in rural Chariton her whole life.

Richard Larsen, 77, Des Moines. Loved classic cars and going to the races.

Stuart Lefstein, 86, Quad Cities. Successfully arguing a patent law case before the United States Supreme Court in 1987. 

Bill Lingle, 64, Davenport. Coached coached Friendly House basketball, travel basketball, Little League and Pony baseball, and helped form the Quad City Bronco League. the Quad City Heat baseball club and Davenport Youth Football League.

Jimmie Maclin, 66, Cedar Rapids. An entrepreneur who lived in Cedar Rapids for over 40 years.

Walter McDonald, 84, Nevada. Devoted his career to safety research and special projects with the Iowa Department of Transportation.

Sherry Miller, 65, Britt. Worked side by side with her husband at Miller & Sons Golf Cars.

Olive Morris, 100, Cedar Falls. Loved her 5 children, 16 grandchildren, 44 great-grandchildren and 5 great-great-grandchildren.

Dewey Nielsen, 74, Oxford. Ran Sleepy Hollow Campground, and loved meeting and visiting the campers and community members who came to the site.

Duane Palmer Sr., 92, Cedar Rapids. Repaired lawnmowers and small engines as a hobby with his best friend, Norm.

Harry Perkins III, 73, Clive. Practiced in Civil Litigation and Trial Law for 45 years.

Leslie Rish, 80, Mason City. Served in the Army in Virigina, Washington, South Korea and Germany.

Jackson Selk, 74, Cedar Rapids. Appointed to the Juvenile Justice Advisory Council for the State of Iowa and worked as coordinator for the Linn County Emergency Youth Shelter.

Barbara Strait, 84, Cedar Rapids. A member of Good Sam's Camping Club. 

 LeRoy "Puttball" Lanxon, 88, Cherokee. Known as "everyman's friend, everyman's confidant and everyman's best buddy" in Cherokee.

John VandeWiele, 83, Quad Cities. President of the Washington School Dads' Club.

Ben Van Hove, 86, Steamboat Rock. Enjoyed flipping pancakes for his Boat Club for Sunday breakfast gatherings.

Dale Viers, 58, Fort Madison. Iowa Department of Corrections Inmate.

Robert Wensel, 83, Sioux City. Served aboard the USS Jasper during the Bay of Pigs.

Michael Zawitowkski, 100, Des Moines. A paratrooper during World War II.

Robert Andrews, 90, Iowa City. A pianist who played solo recitals, in orchestras and as a chamber musician across the U.S. and abroad.

Gary Miller, 64, Coralville. A Reverend at Grace Fellowship Church in Iowa City.