“I thought it was time to give something back that I had learned all through the years, and now I’m teaching someone who will take my place.”
These words from Professor Kent Mears in 2016 were originally intended for a short marketing video at Richland Community College. But since his passing in January 2023, this statement carries much more emotion. When reading this quote, his wife of 50 years, Tonya, said, “That was something I loved about him. He would do anything for anybody.”
To ensure Kent’s giving nature will live on, Tonya made an emotionally significant gift to the students of Richland. The story of that gift starts with the picture below from 1979.
On the right, you’ll spot a young Professor Mears. From the age of 13, he had always been interested in cars. He was going to vocational school during his junior year when his teacher told him, “You know as much as I do. You need to be in a shop.”
So, Kent went to work under the guidance of the second man in the photo – Everett Juhl. Everett was Kent’s mentor who earned the title of father-in-law when Kent and the former’s daughter, Tonya, fell deeply in love.
And as Kent and Everett worked on the photographed 1935 2-door Chevy Sedan, Tonya overheard their conversation as Kent said, “Someday, I’ll have one and I’ll be able to restore it like [the owner] is doing.” From that moment onward, that car became Kent and Tonya’s dream.
As years went on, Kent’s skills in collision repair grew. He continued to work in the shop, but as he got older, he wanted to leave the shop and find a way to keep using his skills. Kent had experience with teaching as the Head Teacher of Central Illinois through the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. So, when he learned Richland had a job opportunity, he took advantage of it – first teaching collision repair courses at night.
“The first time he taught class, the students were eager, and they hung on every word. Boy, did he love that,” Tonya said. “Kent and I were a package deal. With everything he did at Richland, I was by his side – helping him figure out the back end of teaching and shifting his courses online during the pandemic.”
Kent, with Tonya at his side, built the Collision Repair Technology program from the ground up. The college launched it as a stand-alone degree in 2014 – when Kent started working as full-time faculty. The two of them tirelessly promoted the program in the community, and Kent used his connections to help every one of his graduates secure a job. In 2018, he earned tenure.
His dedication also carried outside the classroom. Kent held 4 car shows on campus, donating all the proceeds to local organizations like the Macon County Honor Guard. He also worked closely with Dr. Isaac Zúñiga, Richland’s current Executive Vice President of Academic and Student Success, to build a float in the Christmas parade. Kent originally offered Dr. Zúñiga his expertise, a flatbed truck and lights to make it all go smoothly. What he got out of the parade was a strong friendship.
“Kent and I both loved old-school cars,” Dr. Z said. “Shortly after the parade, I saw his garage for the first time. He was restoring a firetruck that was either from 1959 or 1969, and he showed me a scrapbook full of before and after pictures. When I learned he was a Chevy person, I knew we would be close friends.”
By the fall of 2021, Kent had restored his fair share of old-school cars, but none excited him like the ’35 Chevy. So, he had a conversation with the owner of the 1935 Chevy – the vehicle he and his father-in-law had worked on more than 22 years before. It was still sitting in the same garage. Kent leaped on the opportunity, purchasing the vehicle and bringing it (along with a packet of car history and photographs) home.
At this point, the Chevy had taken on a completely new meaning to Kent and Tonya. It was more than just a car; it was a way for them to travel through time. This dream ’35 Chevy would transport them to their younger years, when their days were filled with dates to Krekel’s.
He was excited to work on his dream car in retirement and decided he would leave Richland in December 2022. Unfortunately, that plan was cut short. In the fall of 2022, doctors diagnosed Kent with terminal cancer, and he left the college early.
“The cancer diagnosis changed our lives completely,” Tonya said. “With the dream car, he had plans for everything from the bucket seats to the paint. Then, everything we had planned was up in the air.”
A couple months later, Richland leadership decided to present a surprise – a signed and framed Tenure Faculty Creed of Distinction. Kent had officially earned the title of Professor.
Dr. Zúñiga said, “I remember Tonya answered the door saying, ‘He’s in the garage.’ We went back to the garage, and he was laughing with his dark glasses and a cigarette – smoking away. He showed us the ’35; that’s the first time I learned how important it was to him and his wife. He said, ‘This is it. This is the one I’m going to put everything into.’ And he did. He worked on it until he passed away.”
Professor Kent Mears died on January 15, 2023, in the arms of his wife and surrounded by family.
After he passed, Tonya focused on finding a perfect new home for the ’35 Chevy. Kent had given her instructions for selling the car, but Tonya wanted to go a different route. That was donating the car to Richland Community College.
At Richland, the vehicle (officially known as Professor Kent Mears’ Dream ’35 Chevy) will be restored by automotive students – passing from class to class for different projects. Once the restoration is completed, the vehicle will be sold to one person: Dr. Zúñiga, who Kent loved like a brother.
“I remember the day they drove the vehicle away,” Tonya said. “His dream car was facing me as the trailer pulled it away. It was leaving like Kent did. I was losing another part of Kent – another part of us. But I knew it was going to help so many more people.”
The funds from the sale will be used to establish Professor Kent Mears’ Memorial Scholarship, but it will take years for the restoration to be completed. In the meantime, there is one thing you can do to ensure Kent can impact present and future automotive students: donate to the scholarship today.
“By donating, you can help me keep Kent alive,” Tonya said. “We need more people to fix vehicles and pass it on – just like Kent. Not just for a wage, but to give back. When Kent was 14, nobody helped him. He just did what he thought was right. Then he learned from dad and other guys, and he wanted to make sure the kids had the help they needed. The automotive students have a chance to learn from people like Kent at Richland. All they need is your help to get into the field.”
Please donate and help train more people like Kent. You can donate to Professor Kent Mears’ Memorial Scholarship at richland.edu/make-a-gift. (In the designation section, click Other and type the name of this scholarship.) Every dollar counts.