ORFORDVILLE—Mike “Fat Cat” Carroll peered in through the grimed-up front window at Sather's Service on a rainy Wednesday morning in Orfordville.
Inside, he saw some old buddies, Chris Speich and Norm Ahrens. They were seated in worn chairs beneath fluorescent lights with traveler cups of coffee clutched tight.
Speich, dressed in Big Key denim overalls and a Speich Oil cap, sat yucking it up over some early-morning wisecrack he'd just made.
Outside, Kevin Wellnitz, a 28-year-old U.S. Army reservist who's seen two deployments in Iraq, stood at the fuel pumps beneath the ancient service station's brown brick overhang. He watched as a school bus filled its tanks.
Bill Sather, 73, stood next to Wellnitz, chatting with another man.
As of two weeks ago, Wellnitz became the 88-year-old service station's new owner. Sather is the station's outgoing owner.
Sather had owned the station at 203 W. Broadhead St. since he took it off his dad's hands in 1970, but he sold it to Wellnitz in January. Sather is retiring at the end of the year, but for now he's helping Wellnitz learn how to run a service station.
Wellnitz, an Army Reserve warrant officer, has a mechanical engineering degree from UW-Platteville and a love for small-engine repair. He's never worked at a service station—much less owned and run one.
“He's doing fine. He'll be fine,” Sather said as he walked through the heavy wooden door into the front room of the service station.
Sather grabbed a Sather's Service calendar from 1946 and showed it around to Carroll, Speich and Ahrens. He sat on a tall padded stool that towered above the rest of the men in their chairs.
“It's almost like a Norman Rockwell,” Speich said, thumbing through the old calendar.
So was the scenery of men inside Sather's front room—flannel shirts, newspapers, worn ball caps and weathered faces. The flyspecked wood shelves next to an old Pepsi machine were lined with bright yellow and red quart bottles of oil and a football that had collected dust so long its laces were rotten.
Wellnitz disappeared into a workroom in the back to whisk an air-powered Dremel brush around the inner walls of a tire he was repairing for a customer.
Outside, a blue 1964 Ambassador Rambler with a white top pulled up at the gas pumps. It had probably been built in Kenosha. Sather eased off his stool and went outside with a puckered grin.
It was the same as Sather's Service ever was.
SAME NAME, DIFFERENT GUY
“I'm not changing the name of this place—Sather's,” Wellnitz said with an impeccable, white-tooth grin. “I start changing the name, and people are going to get confused.
“Some of these people only stop in once a month for a flat tire or something. They get a bill that says 'Kevin's Tire Shop,' and they're going to say, 'What the hell is this?'”
Wellnitz filed invoices in the cubbies above a rusted steel desk next to the counter. His laptop computer and a smartphone looked out of place perched on the desktop.
Sather eyed the electronic gadgets, which Wellnitz is using to slowly catalogue all of the invoice numbers, customer accounts and tire codes that are filed away on note cards or in Sather's brain.
“I'm a 5-by-8 card man myself. I don't know a thing about these computers,” Sather said. “You ask me, 'What I can teach this kid?' Well, I'm learning from him.”
Wellnitz knows small engines, motorcycles and vehicle guts like the gear-head farm boy he once was. He doesn't watch TV or read the newspaper. He doesn't talk much—unless you ask the right questions.
He listens to Sather and the other men rib each other and rant about the government, gas prices, milk futures and how weeds grow much faster in the fall than in summer. There's wisdom there.
“I like listening to the older folks here talk. They've been around the block a couple of times,” the tall, trim Wellnitz said. “Shoot, you hear what's going on in Orfordville here before you hear it about it anywhere.”
Wellnitz said a salesman from Burtness Chevrolet called the other day to ask if the dealership still can hope to get its daily scoop of Orfordville news at Sather's. The salesman also wondered what was going on at the house up at Highways 213 and 11 the night before. Wellnitz put down the phone and asked Sather.
Sather knew. It was a SWAT team using the house for practice.
Sather, who was 30 when he bought the shop from his father, sees glimpses of his own former youth and ambition in Wellnitz.
Just like how Sather morphed the shop from the oil supplier and gas station it was when his father R.W. Sather owned it into a gas station and tire repair shop, Wellnitz has his own new ideas.
At Sather's, he plans to service small engines, motorcycles and vehicles along with selling gas and repairing tires. On a Wednesday morning, he was fixing a carburetor from a cattle truck-driver's pressure washer.
Wellnitz, who served in Iraq in 2006-07 and again in 2011 and remains in the Army Reserve, began working at Monroe Truck as a shop manager in 2012.
He said the job there didn't make good use of the mechanical knowledge he'd picked up on the farm, in the Army and in college, and it didn't tap into his Army leadership skills.
“I was bored,” Wellnitz said.
That's when Wellnitz's father, a dairy farmer in rural Orfordville, told Wellnitz that Sather was looking to sell his service station in Orfordville.
“I didn't really know Bill, and he didn't know me, either, but I told my dad I thought it was a great idea,” Wellnitz said.
Wellnitz got a loan to buy Sather's, and he closed in January, quit at Monroe Truck, and moved into the 1,100-square-foot apartment above the station.
Wellnitz, who runs marathons and competes in triathlons, now commutes the 17 stairs from his apartment down to work. He skips them two at a time.
“I love it here,” Wellnitz said. “I don't care if I'm busy all day. I'd much rather be on my feet than sitting behind a desk—even if I was making 60 grand a year at a desk job. Money's pretty much nothing. I'd rather be busy all day long. I'm happy with the decision.”
Midway through a Wednesday morning, a young woman and her son came through the door looking for Wellnitz. He was in the back, working as the men out front gabbled away.
The woman and her boy went back to see Wellnitz.
“You do tires here?” the woman said.
“Uh-huh,” Wellnitz said, smiling.
Bill Sather's wife, Barb, smiled into the back room with the kind of pride a grandmother would show for a grandson at his first high school football game.
“He'll do good,” Barb said. “He's a good boy.”