By Heather Cass
Publications manager, Penn State Behrend
There’s much more to Penn State Behrend’s faculty and staff members than what you see on campus. In this occasional series, we’ll take a look at some of the interesting, unconventional, and inspiring things that members of our Behrend community do in their free time.
Back in the era of Atari, stonewashed jeans, and Members Only jackets, Jerry Magraw ’87, a Physical Science major, commuted to his classes at Penn State Behrend in a 1964 Chevy Impala he had bought when he was 18.
Today, Magraw is a few years older, but he still occasionally rolls up in that Impala to the School of Science building where he has been a senior laboratory technician for twenty-plus years.
“I hung around a lot of old car guys when I was a kid, and every one of them said they wished they’d kept their first car,” he said, “So I decided to keep mine. It’s moved around with me from garage to garage to garage.”
A born mechanic
The Impala runs like a champ because Magraw is a born mechanic. He was the kid tearing apart toasters, fixing his buddy’s bikes, and taking a blowtorch to his mom’s car.
“When I was 15, my mom bought her first new car, a Dodge Aries, and I talked her into letting me put a sunroof in it,” he said. “It was pretty awesome. Can you imagine trusting your kid do that?”
Magraw can. He and his 15-year-old son, Mitchell, are currently rebuilding Magraw’s late father’s ’79 Chevy pickup truck, resurrecting the boxy two-tone with a small-block Chevy engine that he pulled out of a 1988 Camaro a few decades ago.
“It was the last vehicle my father ever owned, and it will be Mitchell’s when we’re done,” he said.
Mitchell, 15, in his grandfather’s ’79 Chevy pickup.
The same truck today!
Magraw enjoys working on engines, transmissions, suspensions, and electrical systems. He prefers GM products, but he has worked on Fords and Chryslers, too. He likes old cars.
“Everything today is function over form,” he said. “In the ‘50s and ‘60s a lot of cars were built for style. They weren’t always practical, but they were cool. And loud. They were made to draw attention.”
Magraw said the only part of auto restoration he doesn’t like is body work.
“I’d much rather weld a new frame or rebuild an entire engine than do body work,” he said. “I just prefer the mechanical side of things.”
Magraw’s mechanical aptitude comes in handy in his role as a senior laboratory technician in the School of Science. He has responsibility for the physics and chemistry departments, ordering lab supplies, stocking the labs, preparing solutions, serving as a laboratory safety adviser, assisting in designing experiments, and maintaining scientific instruments. He also sets up—and occasionally builds—necessary apparatus.
As you might imagine, Magraw loves nothing more than when a faculty member or student asks him to put his mechanical mind, creativity, and ingenuity to work designing a piece of equipment to assist them in their research work.
“Many times, professors or students will thank me up and down, and I’ll just say, ‘This is my job. I get paid to help you,’’’ Magraw said. “It is pretty cool, though. I’m treated as a colleague, and I get to have wonderful conversations about interesting topics.”
That willingness to help and share his knowledge with others extends to his garage where he often helps friends—and sometimes complete strangers—solve their most puzzling mechanical problems.
“There aren’t that many people who do this kind of work anymore,” he said, “so people come to me when they need help making their old car run.” (See some of the cars he’s worked on in the photo slideshow at the end of this post.)
Roses, shmoses… How about a car?
Magraw’s wife, Candace, has a 1977 Camaro that he restored (above). Their daughters, Marie, 20, a Software Engineering student at Behrend, and Julie, 18, both have cars carefully chosen and inspected by their father.
“I express my love for people in cars,” Magraw said.
Fortunately, he has a wife who understands and supports his hobby.
“It helps that she can see how vehicles appreciate over time,” he said. “My Impala that I bought for $3,500 in the 1980s is now valued at $35,000.”
It’s worth noting that Magraw arrived to pick up his wife for their first date in that Impala.
“In fact, if you look in the glovebox, there’s still a map she drew me to find her house for our first date,” he said.
And with that, Magraw reveals that for all his manly mechanical aptitude and macho hotrods, he is at heart a sentimental guy.
To that end, he does not part with the cars he has rebuilt. There are currently five in his 2,400-square-foot, heated-and air-conditioned garage. One more car will fill the spots available. Magraw is saving that space for his dream car—a 1957 Corvette.
“Completely junked and stripped, a ’57 Corvette is still $25,000, but once I restore it, it will be worth as much at $125,000,” he said.
What happens when he fills the garage?
“I’ll have to build another garage,” he said, completely seriously.
You won’t find him in the garage much this time of year, though.
“We work on the cars in the winter,” he said. “Summer is driving time!”