Prime Time

by Larry A. Hiller

Assistant Managing Editor

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    While he’s learning to fix fenders and smooth out dents, what Dean Kester is doing with his own life is no accident.

    There are bodies all over the place.

    And chassis. And engines.

    The air shivers with the shrilling of sanders, punctuated by the stuttering chatter of impact wrenches. During a lull, you hear the distant hiss of a spray gun. Somewhere, a compressor begins to chug. The tang of fresh paint hangs heavy.

    Look around and you see that this is more than just an ordinary body shop for patching crumples and dents. That tall, square shape in the open paint booth is a 1927 Studebaker. There is a classic red 1956 T-Bird just a few feet to your left. This shop in tiny Glade, Kansas, just south of the Nebraska border, is known across the U.S. for the quality of its auto restoration work.

    Outside, in the bright Kansas sunlight, 16-year-old Dean Kester from nearby Phillipsburg alternately scrapes and sands at a patch of filler on a 1969 Camaro destined for the racing circuit. Unlike the nearly finished cars inside his Uncle Ron’s shop, this car is still a dull primer gray. But the process of restoration is under way, and what is there is solid and sound and shows great promise. Just like Dean.

    Before they were brought here, each of the cars was just sitting somewhere, slowly deteriorating. Dean will tell you frankly that two years ago, he was sort of the same way.

    Dean had been baptized at age eight, but he and his family drifted into inactivity. It didn’t help that he was the only LDS kid in his school.

    “Everybody was giving me a bad time about the Word of Wisdom and going to church all the time. Because I wanted to be like my friends, I started doing everything they were doing. I did some stupid things.”

    It all came to a head just before Dean’s 15th birthday. “I had a driving permit and then a restricted license when I was 14,” he explains. “One weekend my parents had gone to Salina to get some things. Everybody else was taking their cars out and driving around. I figured I wouldn’t get caught.” The car he totalled was the 1960 Falcon that he and his dad had spent two years restoring. That hurt even more than the fines and loss of his license.

    “I don’t know,” Dean reflects. “I was just trying to be like everybody else and I messed up. That’s when Mom decided that we needed to do something. And so we started going back to church.”

    “My mom did a great thing for me. I have to give her a lot of credit,” Dean acknowledges. It was in his small branch in Phillipsburg, Kansas, that Dean found the help he needed to start his own personal restoration process.

    Dean also gives a lot of credit to Steve Horton, the former Young Men president who is now his branch president. “Brother Horton helped me out with learning what I did was wrong and how to repent and become worthy again.” The other members of the branch are great, too, giving him rides to activities, being friends and good listeners.

    It wasn’t easy to get back into the church-going habit. “I was used to sleeping in on Sundays,” he says. So what has it all done for him? Dean grins as he says, “It’s done a whole lot. I feel a lot better about myself. I always told people I was this really great person so people would like me. Even when I was first coming back to church, I was saying that stuff. But then my mom helped me again. She said, ‘If you want people to think something of you, you’ve got to do it; you can’t just say it.’ And so I started trying to act the way I wanted people to think of me and to remember me.”

    When you restore a car, the changes go deep. It isn’t enough just to sand and prime and paint. You go right down to solid, bare metal. What isn’t sound gets replaced.

    For Dean, starting with bare metal has meant a number of things. He’s learned to live the Word of Wisdom. He’s learned to serve and is now first assistant in his priests quorum presidency, eagerly looking for ways to help activate other youth. Going to the temple to do baptisms for the dead has also been a real blessing for Dean. “That really strengthened my testimony,” he says. In fact, he has challenged his whole family—his dad, Vernon; his mom, Linda; and his brothers, Nathan and Kevin—to get ready to go to the temple as a family. And he keeps working on them.

    “He’s changing all of us, getting us more and more involved in the Church,” says his dad.

    None of this means that Dean is through working on himself, of course. For example, there’s the matter of school. “I’m not a straight-A student,” he laughs. “But I’m getting better. In the eighth grade I had that same old problem of wanting to be like everybody else,” he goes on to explain. “All the kids that I thought were my friends were just trying to get by. Well, when I started coming back to church, I decided that I wanted to be myself, so I started getting better grades. I’m just now getting out of the habit of doing only what I have to to pass a course I don’t like. But this last semester I did really great. It was one of my best report cards in a long time.”

    As he openly answers questions about himself and his feelings, Dean continues to work on the Camaro, shaping and smoothing it, bit by bit—just like he’s shaping and smoothing himself with the help of people like his parents and branch president. Among the things he’s still working on are his own feelings about a mission. “I know I should go,” he says, “and I’m saving money for a mission.”

    He’s quiet for a minute, working harder at a stubborn piece of body filler. The Kansas wind continues to ripple the rolling wheat fields on the other side of the road. The only sounds are the rasp of sandpaper, the metallic noises from inside the shop, the passing of trucks on the highway. Then Dean continues:

    “Of course, two years ago, if somebody would’ve asked me if I was going on a mission, I would have laughed. But now, it’s like, sure, I want to go on a mission. I just don’t know when. By the time mission age comes, I’ll probably go.” The more he talks, the more you hear in his voice that he really does know. But it is a big step to come right out and say it.

    And that’s okay. Dean has already taken some big steps. Like the Camaro, he isn’t finished yet. But he’s solid. And he’s taking shape. And he shows the promise of being a winner in the biggest race of all.

    Photography by Welden Andersen and Larry A. Hiller

    Family figures big in Dean’s life, and one of the great things about working in a family business is learning from his grandfather, Willard Kester.

    His uncle Ron, who owns the shop, is a perfectionist who makes sure that Dean masters the basics. You learn to sand and prime before you can apply that gorgeous paint.

    The Kesters are a likable family, ordinary folk who enjoy doing things together, like customizing their own pickup truck. And Dean plays a key role in helping them plan to do something else together—going to the temple.