Love dressed in burgundy

Scott Swanson

Steve Schilling expected his 50th birthday last summer to be a low-key affair.

He told his wife Patricia that he didn’t want a birthday party, so they agreed on a barbecue with some family and friends.

Schilling was standing in the yard when he heard a high-powered engine rumbling up their half-mile driveway south of Crawfordsville. A glistening burgundy Chevy Nova rolled up, driven by local body shop owner Shawn Anderson, whom Schilling had met once previously.

“I was standing out there in the yard and here it comes driving up and I had met Shawn, like a month before,” Schilling said. “I said, ‘What the heck is that?’

“I admired it with Doug Rice. Shawn steps out and first thing I said to him is, ‘That’s one heck of a sales pitch.’

“He said, ‘This is your car.’

“I said, ‘That’s not my car. My car’s in the shop'” – referring to his business, Advanced Mechanical in Brownsville.

“So he takes me around to the front and shows me the license plate that he made for it. That’s when I knew.”

Happy birthday, with love, from Patricia.

The car he was looking at was, indeed, his high school wheels, originally a 1971 lime-green Nova with a 307 small block engine. He’d found it in 1983, when he was 15, and with his dad, Merritt Schilling, went to take a look. He purchased it in 1983 from “a guy who lived on 1st Avenue” in Sweet Home, he recalled.

“We bought that car for $700. I’ve had it ever since.”

Steve and Patricia started dating in 1986, when he was a senior at Central Linn and she was a junior.

“We took it to Senior Prom that year,” she said.

He drove it through high school and the Nova had 163,000 miles on it when Steve parked it and left for college at Oregon Institute of Technology.

It sat in his dad’s shop for decades while the Schillings raised their three children on a farm in the Liberty area and Steve coached wrestling at the Sweet Home Mat Club and Sweet Home High School. Their two sons, Colton and Tyler, wrestle at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and their daughter Lexi is a sophomore at Sweet Home High School.

“He was always going to rebuild it, but then you have kids. You have a business. You coach in state and out of state and nationally. You’re growing a business,” Patricia said.

As Steve’s 50th birthday approached, she wanted to come up with a plan after he nixed the idea of a party, she said.

“He had talked about maybe getting the car done, and maybe his dad would have time to do it, but his dad was working on a couple of other cars. One day I just told his dad and my uncle, ‘I want to get Steve’s car done for his birthday.’

“They looked at me like, ‘What?’ Because it was February and his birthday was in August. ‘I don’t think that’s going to happen.’

“And I said, ‘Well, we need to find somebody who can do it all, because we’re not going to have time to piece-rate the motor out and all that.'”

Family friend Jim Search had recommended Anderson as someone who could work on an old truck that Steve had been planning to have repaired.

“I went up there and met with him and he, fortunately, had some room, some time,” Patricia said.

Initially, Anderson wasn’t sure.

But he took a look at the car and agreed to take it on. The Nova was in perfect body shape except for one small dent in a fender – no rust, he and the Schillings said.

“It was a solid car,” Anderson said.

He said the biggest challenge was the tight timeframe.

“She had us do a complete restoration on it,” he said. “Everything. But she gave us the resources to do it.”

Maintaining the subterfuge proved complicated.

“It was a blessing and a curse that we worked together,” said Patricia, who had to constantly manage the details while keeping her husband in the dark.

“The curse is leaving for lunches and taking phone calls where he’s like, ‘Who are you talking to and why?’

“The blessing is me knowing he’s going to be out of town for the day – ‘OK, Shawn, you can move the car through Brownsville on Thursday because Steve’s going to be gone out of state.’

“It worked out pretty good. I had to tell a few little white lies here and there.”

She said she wondered at times whether her husband suspected something, but her father-in-law and she were able to keep him distracted when the subject of the car came up.

The biggest scare came as the project neared completion and Anderson got a phone call with this cryptic message: “The eagle’s left the building.”

“Jim Search called me and said, ‘I hope you can make that car disappear in about half an hour because Steve’s coming in,” Anderson said.

Anderson Auto Body staffers scrambled to move the car out of sight as Steve Schilling sat down in his office to talk about the car and a truck he wanted to fix up, he said.

“It was really hard to keep my poker face,” Anderson said. “I’m a terrible liar.

“He’s telling me about this car and how he wanted it. The car was 20 feet away from him and he had no idea.”

“That was almost a near-death experience,” said Patricia, clearing her throat.

“I went up there to see him and he just kept me in the office for, like, half an hour,” Steve recalled. “I was thinking, ‘Well, let’s go out and look at the shop.’

“Everybody thought I was onto it and I didn’t have a clue. Then (Anderson) was supposed to come by and look at the car and he kept putting me off, not coming by.”

But it all came together and the end product was exactly what she asked for, the Schillings said. The car now boasts a 350 cubic inch Chevy racing engine that puts out about 350 horsepower, Anderson said. It’s geared for highway driving.

“The dark burgundy color was exactly what we’d talked about,” Steve said. “I never really liked the (original) color.”

Patricia said the hardest call was the interior.

“The motor wasn’t a hard decision because we still have the old motor and, if he still wants it, he can rebuild it and put it back in,” she said. “I had to pick the interior to match the (burgundy) color. ‘If this isn’t want he wants, too bad.'”

Patricia said she had to let a few friends into the secret to make the birthday celebration play out right, but she played her cards close to her vest.

“I would say, outside of the people who were working on it, only 12 people, max, including my kids, knew about it,” she said. “People have loose lips.”

Anderson said when he drove up, Steve clearly did not recognize the car.

“I had machined out a custom license plate. I showed it to him and he looked at it and almost teared up a little.

“It was quite a surprise,” Steve admitted, recalling the event a few weeks ago. “I didn’t even know what to think. In fact, it didn’t really settle in for about a month. I don’t know if it’s settled in yet.”

Patricia said they don’t plan to let the car sit in their garage.

“I’m just excited. It’s fun,” she said. “It was our date car. We can drive to California or whatever, be able to enjoy it.

“It’ll be a family car and,” she added jokingly, “the kids can squabble over it years down the road.”