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Priest’s ’68 Mustang is reborn

Bill McKeown
Colorado Springs Gazette
Vail, CO Colorado
AP Photo/The Gazette, Kirk SpeerFather Brad Noonan is surprised when he sees his restored 1968 Mustang at the Antlers Hotel in Colorado Springs, on May 25, 2007.
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COLORADO SPRINGS (AP) ” Friends of Father Brad Noonan have no doubt the Catholic priest will receive his just deserts in another life. But they weren’t willing to bet those heavenly rewards would include a nice ride.

So, on a recent Friday night, the pastor of St. Patrick parish and the head of the Fire Department’s volunteer chaplain corps was lured to a get-together at Judge Baldwin’s pub in the Antlers Hilton hotel.

Taken outside by a friend pretending he had some weighty matter to discuss, Father Brad was confronted with the sight of about 50 Colorado Springs firefighters standing in front of a covered car parked in the hotel’s circle drive.

On command, the cover was pulled back to reveal … Noonan’s beloved 1968 Mustang, once tattered but now reborn, overhauled with love and affection by some of the firefighters he has befriended over the past decade.

“We love this man very much and thought we’d do something nice for him,” said Clark Gaddie, a paramedic.

Noonan’s reaction to the sight of his fixed-up ride came in stages.

“What did you guys do to my car?” he asked before he slowly circled the classic and uttered a series of “wows” and “whoas.”

He fired up the engine and blasted the radio.

“This is sweet,” he said. “I’ve got to leave other cars at Steve’s garage.”

The seeds of the surprise were planted months ago, when Steve Putzstuck, a driver engineer for the fire department, offered to store Noonan’s red Mustang coupe in his garage for the winter.

Putzstuck noticed the Mustang was in poor shape. The engine smoked; door dings marred its flanks; the tires and rims had seen better days.

Putzstuck approached firefighters who knew Noonan best, including the station just behind the parish that is Noonan’s off-hours hangout. They readily agreed to chip in money and time to fix the Mustang.

Soon after, the car was in a Pueblo garage owned by firefighter Troy Vujcich. Vujcich and his employees rebuilt the top end of the 289-cubic-inch motor, did some work on the automatic transmission and sprinkled some chrome bits on the engine.

The firefighters paid to have a body shop take out the dings and spray on a fresh coat of red paint. They had an exhaust system installed and upgraded the stereo. They cleaned the interior. The firefighters found new chrome front and rear bumpers on the Internet and installed them, along with new tires and wheels. Then they polished and buffed the paint until it shined like a fire truck.

With a couple of months and a bit of deception, 53 friends of Noonan, including retired firefighters and fellow chaplains, spent close to $5,000 to saint-out the priest’s ride.

“It’s one of his few indulgences,” said firefighter Jay Guerrero. “When he bought that thing, he was so excited, even though it was a basic car. He recently came by, and I asked him if he’d consider selling it. He said, ‘No way. When I get in that thing, I feel like a young man.’

“That’s when I knew we’d done the right thing,” Guerrero said, adding the priest just turned 50. “I don’t like telling lies, especially to a priest, but I guess it was OK in this case.”

It’s a cliche, but firefighters spend so much time together, they do become family. It’s why they call their fire station the “house.”

Noonan, for a variety of reasons, has earned entrance.

Firefighters say they’ve been struck over the past decade by the gentle way Noonan, when called to the scene of a death, can calm distraught relatives, gently sharing his belief that death is but a door.

He’s also been a trustworthy confidant of firefighters. He rushed through a snowstorm to perform last rites for a firefighter’s mother and drove miles to say a rosary for the mother-in-law of another firefighter.

Gaddie responded a couple of years ago to a horrific arson fire in which three young children died in a blaze a jury recently decided was set by their father.

“We have good days and bad days like everybody has,” Gaddie said. “Unfortunately, when we have bad days, they’re really bad. I was the one who brought out the 5-year-old, and I spent a lot of time talking to Father Brad about that. He’s helped a lot of us through a lot of tough times. Whenever we turn around, he’s always there for us.”

There’s never a whiff of self-righteousness from the priest, they say. He likes to hang out with firefighters, bring some food, shoot the bull, and jump in the truck if a call comes in.

“He’s just a funny guy,” said Lt. Rock Snowden. “You can talk about everything from sports to theology.”

Recently, the Catholic diocese planned to transfer Noonan to an out-of-town parish as part of a normal rotation. Firefighters blitzed the bishop with letters telling him how important the priest was to them and to those he helps.

As a result, Noonan will be in one “house” or another in Colorado Springs for at least the next six years.

You’ll know him if you see him: He’ll be the collared dude pulling up in a hot red Mustang.

– Colorado Springs Fire Department: http://www.springsgov.com/SectionIndex.asp?SectionID5

– The Catholic Diocese of Colorado Springs: http://www.diocs.org/


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