When Brian Lee of Washington was diagnosed with appendiceal cancer in 2011, one of his last requests was to ride one last time in the same truck in which he and his sister learned to drive a stick shift. Through the efforts of family and friends, he was able to see that goal to fruition last Monday: the night before he passed away at the age of 51.
More than 40 years ago, Brian’s father, Bob Lee of Washington, purchased a new 1976 F250 Ford Highboy truck. That would be the vehicle that Brian and his sister, Brenda Little, would drive through their teen years and beyond.
“Brian was pretty much a natural and could drive it without any problem,” Bob recalled. “I taught Brenda how to drive it. Once she got the feel of it, I would go out to get it because I had to go to work or something, and I’d find she’d taken it somewhere.”
“My brother had many years of driving it and taking his friends all over in it,” Brenda said. “I am sure he even cruised Main Street in Peoria back in the days during his high school years.”
Bob Lee sold the truck in 1988 to a family friend, who later sold it to a relative in Sparland. The new owner eventually parked it in his yard, where it sat for 20 years.
“Naturally, the weather took its toll,” Bob said. “It was rusted, there was hardly any paint left on it, and the hood and the roof had deteriorated. Mice had gotten in it and had chewed up the interior and the insulation on the wiring.”
When the owner passed away several years ago, his son contacted Bob, asking if he was the truck’s original owner. After having the vehicle described to him, Bob confirmed that he was the original owner. Bob informed his son Brian of the owner’s intention to sell the truck.
“We went up to Sparland to look at it,” said Bob. “It was kind of in the timber with trees growing around it. The owner eventually made a deal with Brian, and he bought it. He got it home, and he started to work on it. But then his cancer kind of took over.”
“He loved cars and trucks and fixing things up,” Brenda said. “Well, he got too weak and sick to tinker with it anymore. He always talked about getting it done and tried, but (he) just couldn’t do it.”
As his health began to fail, Brian’s support network stepped in. When Brian received the news in August that he had three months to live, Chris Stamper, his friend since elementary school and a mechanic by trade, took over the task of trying to restore the truck to its 1976 splendor. He assembled a group of friends, collected donations and took the truck to his shop for the overhaul.
“We started from the frame up,” said Chris. “Then we went through the chassis, rebuilt the engine and put in a new exhaust. Several people donated parts, money and time. I worked on it every day for three months. Guys would come in after work and check on me to see if I needed a hand, or they would come in on weekends.”
Brian’s initial wish had been to get the truck running so that he could drive it down the road. But he had also mentioned to Chris that he would like to pass it on to his son, Brent. Chris reasoned that the full restoration was in order. A fully refurbished truck would give Brent an opportunity to experience the pleasures of a first driver’s license in the same vehicle his father had driven some 35 years ago.
“We’re going to keep the truck in the family,” said Bob. “When Brent gets old enough, I’ll teach him how to drive it. Maybe he can pass it down when he has children.”
Brian lived long enough to see his F250 Ford Highboy restored to its gleaming blue, white pinstriped, giant-tired glory. On Dec. 10, Chris drove the truck to Brian’s house.
“(Brian) was sitting in his living room that evening, and I said, ‘Come on outside, if you can,’” Chris said. “So, his wife, Lisa, walked him outside. He was in awe when he saw the truck. I told him I’d take him around the block, but when we got in, I joked that we’d just go to Peoria and Main Street. He laughed and asked me to take him around Washington Square so he could see the truck in the shop windows.”
Although Brian had seen a last wish to fruition through the efforts of friends and family — Chris taking Brian on his last ride on Dec. 11 — the restoration was not complete. The pinstripes had not yet been finished, and automotive painter Brad Grimm of Morton hand-painted a tribute to Brian on the tailgate. It says, “This truck by: Brian Lee... resurrected by: family & friends ‘Cruiz’n Together.’”
“When we took over the job, Brian had done what he could in the three years he’d owned it,” said Chris. “He’d patched up the bed, and we could tell it was important to him for that truck to be back to the way it was. In my heart, I feel he wanted to relive some of his childhood, and that’s what this project was really about. Thanks so much to everyone who helped make it happen.”