Wheaton auto repair shop closing after 47 years -- the only job its owner knew
An auto repair shop is usually an impersonal, mechanical place.
But Tom's Service Center, a fixture in downtown Wheaton for nearly 50 years, became more like a second home for Dan Kullman.
For much of that decades-long run, Kullman was the friendly face who worked on cars in the garage and behind a reception counter surrounded by intimate family photos.
And so it's fitting that Kullman is the last man standing as Tom's Service Center prepares to close Aug 23. A teenage Kullman got his first job there in 1973. He took over ownership of the business 12 years ago.
"It'll be tough," Kullman said of the last day. "But it's progress. Everything can't stay the same."
The shop's namesake and original owner, Tom Niketopoulos, has sold the property -- prime real estate at Main and Wesley streets -- to a developer who wants to tear down the repair shop and construct a one-story retail building.
City planners have had preliminary discussions with the developer this summer but have not yet received formal designs for the project, Economic Development Director Jim Kozik said Tuesday.
As those plans take shape, Kullman, 59, is reminiscing about his workplace and focusing on the jobs he has left.
Parents entrust him to inspect their kids' cars before they head back to college this fall.
"He helps out whatever you need," longtime customer Nick Shargo said. "He gives me good counsel."
Kullman also was known for helping out commuters and neighboring businesses. He used to drive Metra train riders to the downtown station after they left their cars in the repair shop. And he lets students of a music school park in his lot.
Kullman credits that personal touch to the example set by his predecessor and first boss. Niketopoulos hired a 15-year-old Kullman to pump gas and change oil when the center operated what was then a Sinclair station.
"We had to get the work done, but it was fun at the same time," Kullman said. "Tom always made it fun working here."
When business was slow, Kullman and mechanics would play Wiffle ball in the driveway.
"That was when there weren't many cars going up and down Main Street," he said. "If you hit it across the street, it was a home run."
When he took over the reins of the shop in 2005, Kullman still kept Tom's name on the business.
"It would be hard to work anywhere else," said Kullman, who grew up in Wheaton and lives in DeKalb. "That's kind of the reason I bought the business from Tom, because I didn't want to work for anybody else. Because then I'd always compare them to him."
The grandfather of four has no immediate plans after the shop closes. The toughest part of the next chapter?
"I'm going to miss the people," he said.