Remembering John Mendler
A tribute to a good mechanic, and a good neighbor.
Published in November, 2021
John Mendler, the long-time owner of the Marathon station in the vee of Jackson and Dexter roads, died recently. I was a customer of his ever since he bought the station in 1976. In 2013 I interviewed John and wrote a brief piece for the Observer about some of the unique qualities of the station.
I didn't have room to put in much about John himself, but I was pretty sure that that was how he wanted it anyway. To say that John was not one to toot his own horn would be a vast understatement. Over the years, in the hundreds of times I bought gas or had my car repaired at the station we often chatted briefly. We'd shoot the breeze about the weather, he'd ask where I was headed, or what was happening in my work, but rarely volunteered much information about himself. Perhaps because of that, the few times that he did, have remained vivid in my mind.
I remember picking up gas early one morning and John greeting me with, "Did you see that beautiful moon this morning?" The awe in his voice served to amplify a sense I'd long had of him being someone who deeply appreciated the wonders of nature. Every summer his station overflowed with colorful flower baskets and plantings and he always decorated it with cheerful evergreen wreaths and boughs in the winters.
I never complained about the price of gas to John, nor did I ever compare his price with other stations. I always bought my gas there, no matter what. But I do recall at one point in mid 2008, when the price of gas pole vaulted above four dollars a gallon, I asked John what he thought was the cause. He growled, "Greed. Pure greed."
The last time I recall seeing John was just a week before he died. I had stopped by the station twice in one day so I could fill up
both our cars. John noticed. "Gassing up the fleet?" he asked, with only a hint of a grin. Until I cracked up. At which point he did too.
I can't count the number of times over the years that I came to the station with a burned out brake light, or worn windshield wipers, and John, or one of his employees, would make the necessary replacement and then charge only for the cost of the part. Same with minor repairs; loose antenna, wonky door hinge, no charge. Whenever I was about to buy a car I'd always first bring it to John to check it over. He never charged for that either.
When my brother and I bought our first new business car in the 80s I started taking it to the dealer for maintenance and repairs. I thought that's what you were supposed to do. Until, after a routine maintenance, I was handed a lengthy list of other repairs they proposed. I took the list to John, he checked out the car, told me which items were necessary, which ones were not-a significant number-and fixed the rest at a fraction of the cost the dealer had quoted.
Years ago, one early winter morning my car wouldn't start. I knew if I waited for a tow truck my brother and I would be late to the gig we had scheduled that day. I live two minutes from the station. I took a chance and called John at 5:30 AM, hoping he was already there for his usual 6 o'clock opening. He was, and said he'd be right over. He diagnosed and fixed a small problem, got our car started, and refused to accept payment. I've heard many similar stories from a number of friends and neighbors.
Much more than doing excellent work, at reasonable prices, John exemplified stability, personified reliability in a world that all-too-rarely provides those things. For forty-five years, day in day out, you could count on him to be at the station. He often seemed to me to be a throwback to an earlier time, embodying the old fashioned virtues of honesty, humility, frugality, and service. He was a gentle giant-one woman I know referred to him as "this Norse God"-who exuded competence and reassurance. Whenever I was forced to limp into his station, my car coughing or stuttering with one mysterious vehicular malady or another, I always had the bolstering feeling that John would know what to do, would do it well, and would not charge me an arm and a leg. It was like having a very good doctor you could really trust.
Last year, when I heard from one of my neighbors that John's wife, Janet had been diagnosed with lung cancer, I asked after her. John said she was undergoing chemo, and that it was hard. Then he thanked me for asking. When Janet died about six months ago I offered John my condolences and asked how he was doing. Characteristically, he said simply, albeit heavily, "It's an adjustment," and then again added, "Thank you for asking."
Come to think of it, "Thank you," was perhaps the most frequent phrase I heard in John's vocabulary. Usually, a man of very few words, he nevertheless always said, "Thanks very much," every time I paid for gas or repairs. Of course, I thanked him every time too. Here's one more, "Thank you, John."
On November 18, 2021, John Kazanjian wrote:
Excellent job San. You captured John's personality, demeanor and level of integrity just beautifully. Thank you. The "west side" has lost one of its best. Ann Arbor would be greatly blessed to have more "John Mendlers" in the community.
I'll add one more story. For many years I had a store in the same vee, right behind John's station. He did the brake job and then parked the car in my lot. When he walked in to drop off the keys he said, "Hey John, I'm really sorry. I put a butt print in your fender while trying to lift your car onto the hoist. So no charge for the brake job and let know how much it costs to have it repaired." I went out and looked at the car and could barely see what he was talking about. It took me several weeks of insisting before he would accept payment for the brake job.
I could tell so many more stories that would reaffirm all Sal has written. We've lost a real gem. Rest in peace my friend.
On November 18, 2021, Eve Silberman wrote:
A wonderful tribute, San! I wish John could read it, but he would have been embarrassed.
On November 19, 2021, Lindsay wrote:
This piece was absolutely perfect! You captured John's personality so well. Thank you for honoring him in this way; it was so touching. As a journalist, John's wife (my Great Aunt) would have also loved reading this piece. John was truly a special person!
On November 19, 2021, Anthony Barden wrote:
Very nice tributes that sound very familiar as a longtime resident of the neighborhood. I can't even count the number of times that John went above and beyond to help us out in a time of need. He was a cornerstone of the old West Side and he will be missed.
John always took great care of my family throughout the years. He was who we went to in times of automotive turmoil and he was always able to calm us down and reassure us. It's not a good feeling to know nothing about cars when you're having car trouble. You're often at the mercy of people that you don't know or trust but thankfully we were able to avoid that uncomfortable dynamic by taking our cars to John and his crew. You knew that you would get an honest assessment on what was necessary to get you back on the road. He (and Ron) always explained what they thought the best option was and they never tried to push you to do anything that wasn't really necessary unlike most dealerships. It's hard to find sincere businessmen like that these days.
I have many good memories of times that John saved the day but here are two that come to mind. The first involves my Mom who never even allowed herself to buy gas elsewhere. She woke up one morning to find a totally dead car. She called John who then insisted on coming over to look at it in her driveway (she only lived a few blocks away) so that she didn't need to have it towed over. He drove over, checked her car out in her driveway, gave her a jump and then followed her down to the station to take a closer look. He of course refused payment for anything. Now that's customer service!
The second involves me being in a really tough spot on my way back from the UP. On the way home from my brother's graduation from Northern, as I drove down I-75 my car made some awful sounds which forced me to pull over on the shoulder. I was with my girlfriend (now wife) in the middle of nowhere and we didn't have a clue what to do. We ended up getting a tow to a garage in Gaylord where I found I needed a new engine... I know nothing about cars so I found myself at the mercy of mechanics that I did not know or trust. So what did I do? I called John and Ron and explained my situation and asked if they could advise me. They asked to speak to the mechanic and had him justify what he was proposing and then they reassured me that the diagnosis and proposed solution were ok. Knowing that I could rely on them in my time of need meant the world to me and my Dad (who was funding said repairs).
On November 19, 2021, C Brummer wrote:
Maybe fifteen years ago, I had a flat tire as I started my commute to Detroit. We do not have a garage, it was raining and I was dressed in a suit for work; the only thing I could think to do was drive to the nearest service station. That would be Mallek's at the junction. The owner, John, let me pull my car into the right-hand bay. He watched with bemusement as I started unloading audit bags and computers to get at the spare…. Then he told me to please sit in the office while he changed the tire. I didn't feel he thought a woman couldn't change a tire. His politeness came with a smile and a hand point suggesting he was better dressed for the task. There was no charge. In those days, I often drove 600 miles (two tank fulls worth of commute) a week and I was more than pleased to always work it so I filled up at Mallek's to return John's favor. His early hours matched mine. His ready smile perked me up to no end.
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