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Archive for Sunday, March 2, 2014

Lawhorn’s Lawrence: Still full-service

March 2, 2014

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Richard Haig owns Westside 66 at 2815 W. Sixth, the last full-service gas station in Lawrence. “We have people who think they’re pulling up to a self-service pump,” says Haig, who has owned the station since 1985. “When we come out to start pumping their gas, we get some blank stares.”

Richard Haig owns Westside 66 at 2815 W. Sixth, the last full-service gas station in Lawrence. “We have people who think they’re pulling up to a self-service pump,” says Haig, who has owned the station since 1985. “When we come out to start pumping their gas, we get some blank stares.”

Ding, ding.

In 1981, that sound still produced magic as often as “abracadabra.”

A car would pull up to something called a “service station,” its tires would roll over a little rubber hose that would trigger a bell, and a man with a squeegee and a red shop rag would emerge like a rabbit out of a hat.

And then, get this, he would fill your car up with gasoline. Yes, you still had to pay for it (even magic has its limits). But he would take care of the mundane task while you sat in the comfort of your car, bopping your big hair against the headliner as either Boy George or George Michael played on the radio.

In 1981, Richard Haig had the squeegee. Back then he was just an employee at the Westside 66 filling station, 2815 W. Sixth St. Back then, that area — now across the street from a Dillons grocery store — was a museum but just didn’t know it. There was the El Navajo Drive-Up Motel, a little farther west the Sunset Drive-In Theater, and a full service gasoline station.

In 1981, there were still at least 20 filling stations in Lawrence that offered full service, Haig estimates. That was a good portion of all the gas stations in town, but already stations were starting to give motorists the option of pumping their own gas. In 1957, when Westside 66 was founded, you might as well have spit on a fellow’s wingtips as suggest that he pump his own gasoline.

Today, there is only one full-service station in Lawrence. You guessed it. Haig still has the squeegee, although just two of the station’s pumps are full-service.

“We have people who think they’re pulling up to a self-service pump,” says Haig, who has owned the station since 1985. “When we come out to start pumping their gas, we get some blank stares.”

Perhaps some of you have blank stares at the moment. In case you don’t know, here’s how full-service fueling works. At Westside, you pay an extra 30 cents a gallon for the gasoline. In exchange, a mechanic from the station’s shop pops from behind a garage door, pumps your gas, washes your windows, checks your tire pressure, and checks your fluid levels. If you are a quart low on oil, for example, that will cost you extra to have it filled. But if you just need a little bit of windshield washer fluid or coolant, that comes with the 30 cent per gallon fee.

The advice also is free. You do have a trained mechanic right there, after all. If you want to ask him why your car goes ticka, ticka, ticka, ticka, you can do so. (I suppose you also could just start it up and let him listen to it, but that doesn’t seem like as much fun.) Or if a fuse or a windshield wiper needs replaced, no need for an appointment. Your gas attendant can do it on the spot.

If you didn’t know any of this, don’t feel bad. Most communities don’t have any full-service stations anymore. The latest estimates I found from the convenience store industry put the amount of self-service stations in the U.S. at over 90 percent. It would be even greater if not for laws in New Jersey and Oregon that prohibit self-serve pumps.

“As long as I can keep it going here, I will,” Haig says of his plans.

Part of that probably will depend on whether anyone wants service in the future. It has been kind of strange, but the generation that made sitting on a couch with a video controller in your hand a national pastime, is perfectly fine with getting out of their cars and pumping gas. In the 1980s, Haig says about 50 percent of all the gas his station sold was through the full-service pumps. Now, it is about 20 percent.

“But we still get all types of people who use the service,” Haig says. “Rich people in suits who don’t want to get dirty. Moms who don’t want to leave the kids alone in the car. Some people just want to take a breath.”

But why is Haig so insistent on keeping this bygone practice? Simple: the bread. No, that’s not slang for cash. Haig concedes that most months full-service doesn’t pencil out well for the station. He’s talking about actual bread.

For years, a customer would bring him and some of the guys at the station German Stollen, a fruitcake-like bread, around the holiday. Haig had noticed her license plate one time when he was pumping her gas. It was IH82FLY: I Hate to Fly. Haig, who is the chair of the city’s Aviation Advisory Board, is an airplane nut. So, it was the beginning of a back-and-forth that would last for years. The woman recently passed away. Her son showed up at the station with a license plate. She wanted Haig to have it.

“I would say that 90 percent of our customers are like family,” Haig says, sitting next to the license plate that hangs by his desk. “We know when they are having struggles. We know when their kids are doing well with sports. A lot of this is the old ‘Cheers’ effect. People like to have a place where they know your name.”

It is a relationship that you never know what it will produce. Haig has another memento hanging on the wall that is proof of that. It details the time Haig crashed a B-2 Bomber. Well, a B-2 Bomber simulator, anyway. Haig and another group of Lawrence pilots got the rare chance to fly the B-2 simulator at Whiteman Air Force Base because one of Haig’s customers arranged it.

Haig had arranged a little something for him earlier. The longtime customer had told Haig during one fill-up that he had cancer, and doctors were measuring the time in weeks, at that point. Haig and some pilots pooled some resources to fly the customer to Houston’s famed M.D. Anderson Cancer Center.

“It if wasn’t for the people element of this job, I would find something else to do,” Haig says.

The Houston treatment helped the man live peacefully for two years longer than doctors had originally expected. Think about that for a moment. Two extra years of life that started because a man decided not to swipe his card at the pump. Two extra years that began by one man serving another.

Ding, ding.

— Each Sunday, Lawhorn’s Lawrence focuses on the people, places or past of Lawrence and the surrounding area. If you have a story idea, send it to Chad at clawhorn@ljworld.com.

Comments

John Yocum 9 months, 3 weeks ago

A great story about a great guy. There are numerous stories out there that people could tell about Rich. For me, it was the time that I pulled up to the station and asked Rich about why the AC in my car seemed to be struggling. Rich first topped off the freon (quite a bit was needed), then checked the system. He concluded that a part which keeps the freon moving was bad. I chose not to have it fixed (the part was more than the value of the car) and when I asked how much the freon was, Rich said, "No charge." A great guy who still cares about his customers.

Ron Holzwarth 9 months, 3 weeks ago

I have heard nothing but good things about Westside 66 filling station. I've been told that if you don't have a lot of money and your car isn't running right, they're the place to go to for advice about how much longer your car is likely to run like this, and an estimate about how much it will cost to repair it. And, you might be quite surprised to learn that it's a very minor problem that they can quickly fix for you right now at a very low price.

They are very different than some other repair places that sometimes charge outrageous prices for the most minor repairs that are done not in your interest, but in the interest of their inflated profit margins. If you don't know very much about how your car works, Westside 66 is definitely the place to go if your car isn't running right!

Ron Holzwarth 9 months, 3 weeks ago

The El Navajo Drive-Up Motel was mentioned as being near Westside 66 years ago. That brought up a blast from the past, for sure! But then, when German Stollen, a fruitcake-like bread, was also mentioned, the combination was too much, and I felt I had to tell a bit about one of the most unfortunate men I have ever met.

It happened in 1978 or 1979, and I was a driver for the airport shuttle from Lawrence to KCI/MCI. A gentleman had been waiting in the airport terminal for over a day, and finally someone tried to talk to him. But, he only knew one English word: "Lawrence."

So, I was summoned to drive him to Lawrence, and by coincidence, my sister was riding along, just for company. I had been warned that the language barrier would be a problem. I know just a bit of German, so I asked him "Kennst Sie Deutsch?" (Do you know German?)

"Ja!" (Yes!) was the answer, and an hour long conversation ensued, all the way to Lawrence, while my sister sat there laughing, having no clue what we were discussing. It was fun, I hadn't had a chance to practice German for years.

The man was from Iran and Farsi was his native language, and he also knew a few others. He was 65 years old, and he told me he was old and would never again take another trip like this, halfway around the world. This was his big trip!

When we got to Lawrence, he showed me a piece of paper with the address of his relatives written on it, so I took him there.

But - they had moved away!

He made a couple phone calls to people who knew Farsi, or perhaps Arabic, but he couldn't find anyone he knew. So, he wanted me to take him to an inexpensive motel, and he would try to figure out what to do later.

I dropped him off at the El Navajo Motel, and I don't know what happened after that.

Even after all these years, my sister sometimes mentions that she often wonders about what happened to the man who flew halfway around the world to visit his family, and then discovered they had moved away, leaving him alone here in the United States, knowing no English at all. And she almost always adds, "I'll never forget him!"

Andrew Stahmer 9 months, 3 weeks ago

Gee, THANKS Ron...now all of us have to sit around wondering what ever happened to the poor guy!! LOL

Ron Holzwarth 9 months, 3 weeks ago

I just messaged my comment about the Iranian man to my sister, and she responded with this:

"And it's true! I will always remember that guy. I felt so sad for him."

Tony Kisner 9 months, 3 weeks ago

Richard makes Lawrence a better place absolutely. His station also provides a lot of kids a job and start in a good career path.

Thomas Bryce 9 months, 3 weeks ago

I remember walking across 6th street from Schwartz to fill up my one Gallon gas can for the Lawns I mowed. It was only 50 cents then. Rich is a great guy. Talked with him many times and worked there for a short time when I was a teen. Rich and the Westside 66 are one of the reasons Lawrence is remembered by many who visit, as a very Friendly Place, and a Place they want to return to. Thanks Rich, for all your years of Dedication and Service. You are truly an Asset to this community.

Marc Mondi 9 months, 3 weeks ago

Westside 66 is a Lawrence icon, and Rich truly is one of Lawrence's finest. As a former employee, Rich trained me and gave me an opportunity as a high school student with little automotive knowledge. Through the years (summers between college, holiday breaks, etc.) Rich ALWAYS found time for me when I needed to work a few hours. Not only has Rich been such an important part of my life as a great employer, Rich has been a great friend to help me out in tough times throughout my life as well. That, I feel, epitomizes who Rich Haig is; not just a fine business man, but a caring individual who always has time for others, and who always will be there to lend a helping hand to his fellow man. When I am back in Lawrence, I always make it a point to stop by and say 'hello' to Rich and the gang at Westside 66; it really is a place where 'everybody knows your name'. Cheers to a Lawrence institution!

Anthony Grosshans 9 months, 3 weeks ago

There's a great comfort, almost bragging really, when you can absolutely recommend a business to family, friends, and even visitors. Westside 66 & Richard Haig are community treasures. Almost can't wait until the 'dealership warranty' expires on the new car so we can get back to Richard for all the regular (because every emergency was already managed by Mr. Haig) maintenance. Simply the best.

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