Working Together: 3 Generations Of Family Mechanics

Sep 3, 2017
Originally published on September 5, 2017 12:26 pm
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

To honor the work of the American people this Labor Day weekend, we're going to turn to the work of the late author Studs Terkel. He spent the early '70s talking to people about their jobs for his collection of oral histories titled "Working." One of those interviews took place in a family-run auto repair shop outside of Chicago. Studs Terkel went to find out about fixing cars but discovered a different story about families who work together. Our partners at Radio Diaries and Project& bring us a portion of that interview and an update on the family business, which is still running, but we'll start with Studs Terkel.

STUDS TERKEL: We're on the south end of Route 31, Geneva, Ill. And we're sitting here in the office of this service station talking to Duke Singer. I'm looking at the sign - Duke and Lee's. That's father and son. And your son, Lee, is how old?

DUKE SINGER: Twenty-four.

TERKEL: He's 24. He's your partner?

D. SINGER: Yes.

TERKEL: And, Lee, you've been working with your father how long?

LEE SINGER: Well, more or less ever since I've been 12 years old.

TERKEL: So let's talk about the work you do, Duke.

D. SINGER: Oh, I love it. There's never a day long enough, you know.

TERKEL: It's the automobile, it's tinkering with cars you like?

D. SINGER: It's not tinkering. it's...

TERKEL: No, not tinkering. I'm sorry - repairing, fixing, you know.

D. SINGER: For instance, this morning, a man came in. We repacked his wheel bearings, lined his front-end, lubricate and change oil. And he didn't know it, but he had only one taillight working, so we fixed that, you know. See, all we sell is service. And if you can't give a service, then you might as well give up.

TERKEL: Now your son. Is Lee's attitude toward the job the same as yours?

D. SINGER: No. For instance, a person's car is broke down. It's on a Sunday or a Saturday night or something. And maybe it'd take an hour to fix it. Why, I'll go ahead and fix it. But Lee's the type that will say, well, leave it sit till Monday, you know.

TERKEL: Yeah. I'm talking to Duke's son now, Lee Singer. Lee, do you feel - now, this is a big question because this involves generations - do you feel there's a difference between his attitude and your attitude toward the job?

L. SINGER: I have pride in what I do. But see, this day and age, you don't always repair something - you renew.

TERKEL: Go ahead, tell me more about this.

L. SINGER: Take a water pump. Back in his era, you rebuilt water pumps. But now, you put on new ones. His ideas are old, really. He's kind of old-fashioned.

TERKEL: In what way is he old-fashioned? In what way?

L. SINGER: Like, judging people. Anybody with long hair is no good to him, see, anybody with long hair, even me.

TERKEL: I should point out that Lee's hair isn't long, but it's longer than the usual for a conventional haircut. Do you like your work?

L. SINGER: Yeah, I like my work - in a way.

TERKEL: And you feel there's something else outside the work you're doing here?

L. SINGER: Oh, yeah.

TERKEL: There's other worlds, whereas to your father, this is the world.

L. SINGER: Right. But I'm in now pretty deep, you know? It's one of those deals where the son does carry on the family tradition.

TERKEL: Lee, thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF VEHICLE STARTING)

L. SINGER: How you doing, Phil (ph)? You got any warranty on that baby? We fixed the transmission shift on it yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)

L. SINGER: Duke and Lee's, how may I help you?

I am Lee Singer. My dad died - I think it was May the 6 of 2005. He was old-school. He could pinpoint rattles, squeaks, noises from an engine or transmission or differential. I mean, we could put him in a trunk of a vehicle, shut the lid and go drive it around the neighborhood, hit some bumps. And he'd holler out, OK, take it back. And he'd tell you right exactly what it was like that.

I mean, I really did appreciate what my dad knew. But as far as our relationship, he always kind of looked down on me, you know. Well, I had friends and I know they had a lot better relationship with their dad than I ever did, but they weren't with their dad as much as I was, either. So, you know, a family business, it's totally different.

SCOTT SINGER: Yeah, it's tough. Father and son working together is tough.

L. SINGER: This is my son, Scott.

S. SINGER: I don't think our relationship is as bad as how you and grandpa were, but it's like you said, he was old-school. Well, now you're old-school because you're like grandpa. You don't want change. I said that because we're in that new generation, that new era where everything's getting even more advanced. And it's all going electronic and hands-free. So you have to be willing to make change to survive with the new era. And if I'm going to run the show, I'm going to run the show, hopefully for another 40 years.

L. SINGER: Just don't forget about service to your customer.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)

L. SINGER: Duke and Lee's, how may I help you?

MARTIN: That was Scott Singer with his dad, Lee. Before them, Duke Singer of Duke and Lee's Auto Service from Studs Terkel's book "Working." Not long ago, Scott Singer officially took over the family business. And now, he has a new employee, his 24-year-old son, Austin (ph). This story is part of the series Working Then And Now from the folks at the Radio Diaries podcast.

(SOUNDBITE OF CASPIAN'S "HYMN FOR THE GREATEST GENERATION") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.