This love affair never lost its spark

Donald Hagert has had a lifelong affection for tooling around in vehicles of all kinds, from family sedans, to classic cars to pickup trucks. Mary Lee Hagert/Review

Do you remember the first time you got behind the wheel of a car and put the key in the ignition?

Despite trying, I can’t, but my father, Donald, recalls with amazing clarity the exact moment he first drove a vehicle, even though it took place nearly a lifetime ago.

A labor shortage had developed in his hometown of Remsen, Iowa, because so many men were serving in the military during World War II. A local grocer, J.P. Beck, resorted to hiring inexperienced 16-year-olds to drive his delivery trucks, and one of those kids was my father. 

On his first day, he crawled behind the wheel, and Beck briefly instructed him how to shift the gears and told him to give it a try. With no driver’s license, no driver’s-ed classes and lots of nervous excitement, Dad remembers “grinding the gears all the way around the block, and grinning from ear to ear.”

After that he spent his summers driving that big truck across the rolling hills of northwest Iowa, dropping off heavy sacks of chicken feed and boxes of groceries at Beck’s stores in nearby towns.

Navigating unfamiliar roads — with confidence and ease — soon became second nature.

When I was a kid, hitting the open road always involved Dad at the wheel and Mom in the passenger seat with a map on her lap, though she seldom needed to look at it. Dad was always steady and self-assured as he crisscrossed busy highways in our sedans — a Chevy Deluxe, a Nash that Dad says “rode like a Cadillac,” a red Rambler that rattled with every bump on the road, and an Oldsmobile 88. The three kids in the back seat would roll down the windows to let the sweet scents of summertime fill the air.

Dad’s strong arms lightly held the steering wheel — red, green, blue or tan — depending on the family car that year. His flattop hair and plaid shirt rippled in the breeze from the open windows.


Buying that first car

Our utilitarian family automobiles were a far cry from Dad’s “flashy” first set of wheels — a pea-green 1923 Willys-Knight roadster, which he bought from Barney Bornhorst, the Remsen blacksmith. Yes, there were still a few blacksmiths around back when Dad was young, but even they had made the transition from horses to horsepower.

He paid $12 for the Willys, which was a lot of money back then. He recently told me with a chuckle, “That car was loud when I bypassed the muffler, which was a teen-age boys’ delight.” He eventually replaced the Willys with a 1947 Indian Chief motorcycle.

Over the years he enjoyed tooling around in his pickup trucks and classic collectible cars, and would spend hours tinkering with them.

When he retired at age 70, one of his greatest pleasures was road trips to far-flung destinations, but by then he preferred fuel-efficient compact cars to flashy roadsters.

A long-held goal was to live longer than his father, who died at age 87 1/2. Dad has achieved that milestone; he will turn 88 on Oct. 12. 

But it’s bittersweet.

This past year he’s overcome a string of lung infections, is short of breath and becoming a tad forgetful, sometimes a bit more than a tad. 

His doctor could see that his eyesight, hearing and motor skills were not as sharp as they once were, and told him that the time had come to hang up his car keys. 

But Dad countered that he was driving “just fine.”

Clutching his renewal reminder card in his hand, Dad went to the courthouse and passed the test administered to elderly drivers. But with pressure coming from his doctor and his family to stop driving, he reluctantly agreed to forego getting a new license, and instead surrendered his old one in exchange for a photo ID card.


The bumpy ride of change

Ever since that big day, he’s been on an emotional rollercoaster, questioning whether he decided to get off the road too soon, and feeling a loss of freedom and independence. Driving had become an intrinsic part of his identity and for the first time in seven decades, he could no longer hop in his vehicle and go for a spin.

Now our roles are reversed. I’m the one driving him on errands around town and to medical appointments in distant cities. As we cross the rolling hills along county highways, he lowers his window and lets the air ruffle his flattop and plaid shirtsleeves, while whistling favorite tunes.

We’re charting a new course together, one that we never envisioned when I was a child in the back seat watching the scenery flit by; when everything seemed so safe and secure with Daddy behind the wheel.


Mary Lee Hagert
Contributing writer

Mary Lee Hagert can be reached at


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