Auto & Tire Clinic owner Gary Valkenaar hopes to sell his Hwy. 70 West auto repair shop to a like-minded entrepreneur.
Auto & Tire Clinic owner Gary Valkenaar hopes to sell his Hwy. 70 West auto repair shop to a like-minded entrepreneur.
The calendar-flipping transition from the old year to the new is traditionally a time of celebration — the stuff of noise-makers, streamers and party hats, colorful fireworks, midnight champagne toasts, and the melodic strains of “Old Lang Syne.”

While Gary Valkenaar, the longtime 43-year owner of Auto & Tire Clinic Inc., quietly slipped into retirement Dec. 30 as he turned the “open” sign to “closed” for the final time at his full service Eagle River auto repair garage, the new year turn of his life story to a new chapter with 2022’s arrival is no less dramatic than the typical New Year’s hoopla.

Valkenaar was well-suited from an early age for a career as a mechanic as “an Erector Set kind of kid, probably starting when I was eight, nine years old.”

“I was fixing everything my mother broke,” he recalled with a laugh. “I was interested in everything that tick-tocked, anything that was mechanical, electrical. I took many things apart and put them back together just for the fun of it, just to see how they worked, right down to my toy trains. I took my locomotive apart one afternoon because I had to know how it worked — and then I put it back together.”

Those early formative experiences led to a lifelong interest — and career — for Valkenaar.

“I love fixing things,” he said. “I’ve always been one for tinkering. It’s in my nature. I’m a gearhead, a nuts and bolts and gears kind of guy. The biggest part of this trade is you’ve got to be able to troubleshoot properly to get the end result to fix it, to make it better, to make it work again. You’ve got to know what’s wrong. I guess that’s my forte. It comes natural. Either you’ve got it or you don’t.”

After graduating from Eagle River Union High School in 1971, Valkenaar continued his studies in the 2-year auto trade school program at Fox Valley Technical College in Appleton.

Valkenaar then headed to the desert southwest, working as a mechanic in Phoenix for 2-1/2 years, with Colorado as a stopping point, but he soon returned home to the North Woods.

“It was too hot — I worked two summers down there and that was enough,” he recalled. “We were up at five in the morning and we couldn’t work past noon, one o’clock. We were ‘The Baker Boys’ because we all wore white. We worked in an outdoor shop with just a roof over our heads. That was pretty trying.”

Valkenaar said he was tipped off by his dad about a vacant auto repair garage back home in Eagle River.

“My dad caught wind of it and said, ‘Hey, there’s possibly an opportunity,’” he recalled. “It was kind of like ‘Wizard of Oz. Click your heels, ‘There’s no place like home.’”

Obtaining the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. franchise for Eagle River, Valkenaar reopened the shop and put up his Auto & Tire Clinic shingle along Highway 70 West in June 1978.

“It was a dream to run my own repair shop,” he noted.

Initially leasing a quarter of the building, Valkenaar began renting additional units in the building as they became available to house his growing business. Renting the entire building at 322 W. Pine St. a decade later, Valkenaar struck a deal to purchase the building outright, later putting on a two-bay addition in the back. Additional help was added as the business grew over the years, at its peak a team that included Valkenaar, four mechanics and a lady to run the office and greet customers at the reception desk.

“I built it up from the ground up, slow but sure,” Valkenaar said of his full service Automotive Service Excellence (ASE) certified repair garage. “This was an excellent run — 43, almost 44 years. I’ve been blessed by the people in this town.”

Customers were drawn to Auto & Tire Clinic from a wide swath of the North Woods — south to Rhinelander, west to Minocqua and north of the border to Watersmeet and Iron River, Mich.

Valkenaar credited his shop’s popularity and success over the years to his approach to customer care.

“I’m very upfront and very honest,” he said, noting some longtime clients had been with him upwards of 35, 40 years. “The key is to tell them like it is. I’m very straightforward. People in this area appreciate that.”

While eagerly embracing his new life in retirement, closing down Auto & Tire Clinic in the process wasn’t part of Valkenaar’s original plans. He had hoped to sell the business to a like-minded entrepreneur who would have perpetuated and built on the repair shop’s legacy.

While he holds out hope that “somebody comes along in the next month or two and decides to fire this place back up,” Valkenaar concedes he’s “not optimistic” about the prospects, citing the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, now starting its third year.

“If I would have decided [to retire] a year before Covid, I think it would have been a completely different story,” he said. “It seems like Covid has put a damper on a lot of things and it’s really gonna screw up a lot of things. You’re already seeing the supply [chain] problems. It all trickles down. Everybody’s afraid about the economy. The media’s got everyone so scared of different things. Who really knows what’s up ahead? All you ever hear about is Covid, Covid, Covid, Covid, Covid.”

As it was, Valkenaar said the well-documented labor woes since Covid’s 2020 arrival, dubbed “The Great Resignation” by the national media, had made running Auto & Tire Clinic an increasing challenge.

“Look at all the ‘help wanted’ signs,” he said. “Nobody wants to work. I’ve been trying to find a technician for two years.”

It’s a problem that perplexes Valkenaar, who cut his teeth in the workforce as a teen delivering laundered goods to summer camps and performing maintenance work at Seifert’s Laundry, and working pit, landscaping and mason-tending duties for Richter Brothers Redi Mix.

“I’ve been working since I was 14,” he said. “I’ve always had a job.”

Our interview in Auto & Tire Clinic’s waiting room was interrupted periodically by a stream of well-wishing longtime customers, including Keith Slizewski of Eagle River.

“He’s honest and truthful,” Slizewski said of Valkenaar. “We’ve had a good relationship. He knows what he’s doing. I’m definitely sorry to see him go. He’s got a capable crew.”

While Valkenaar won’t miss the rigors of running a six-day-a-week year-round business — “all I do is work and I go home” — he will miss his many customers.

“I’ll miss the people, the many, many friends,” he said, noting he hopes to still connect with his former customers around town at the supermarket and community events. “I’ll miss a lot of the faces.”

Valkenaar said he’ll also miss the relationships built over the years in the service bay working alongside his technicians.

“It became a brotherhood in here,” he said, surveying Auto & Tire Clinic’s service bay.

Turning his sights ahead to retirement, Valkenaar plans to stay busy. His wife, Constance, retired two years ago from a 38-year career working for Vilas County, the last 26 as administrative assistant in the Forestry, Recreation and Land Department.

“I’m not gonna be bored — there’s always home projects,” he said.

And a good deal of travel is also in the offing.

“I’ve got a pretty good ‘bucket list’ of places I’d like to go,” Valkenaar said. “I’d like to do some traveling. My wife would love to do some traveling. People always dream of these really exotic vacations, but there’s so much to see right here in the U.S.A. There are so many great national parks in this country I’d like to see. Really, it all boils down to some nice traveling.”

Valkenaar said he and his wife favor the spontaneity of unstructured travel open to on-the-road serendipity.

“We’re not ones to plan trips,” he explained. “We’re not that way at all. For us, it’s like, ‘Okay, the car is loaded. Which way are we going?’ We have never really ever planned anything to a ‘T.’ We’ve had some wild adventures in our lives because we don’t plan anything. We just kind of take it as it comes. Never been disappointed with that theory. We always find some of the best things you can’t even dream about. It just happens. We just go with the flow.”