Strangers help dying Frazee teen overhaul his pride and joy
FRAZEE, Minn. - Tyler Shipman will never have a wedding. But this weekend, the 18-year-old will see one of the loves of his life dolled up like never before.
Close family and friends will attend.
Pictures will be taken.
And about 20 strangers from as far away as Florida and California will give a makeover to the rural Frazee teen's pride and joy: a 1986 Pontiac Fiero GT.
The effort began Oct. 29 when Shipman, who was stuck in a Fargo hospital at the time, asked for help on Pennock's Fiero Forum, an Internet chat site for fans of the short-lived, two-seater sports car.
Shipman, a self-described "Fiero head," said he always intended to restore his GT to mint condition.
His mission became more urgent when he learned a rare form of cancer called synovial sarcoma would cut his life short.
"I wanted to get it fixed up so I could drive it or at least ride in it when it was really nice, before anything happens," he said. "And I figured that would be the place to go to ask for some kind of help, and things just started from there."
The response was almost instantaneous.
By the next morning, a soldier in Iraq chatting as "Hulki U. My-BFF" had started a list of parts Shipman needed. Another forum member, "Synthesis," from Inver Grove Heights, picked up the ball and kept it rolling.
As of a week ago, the forum's thread for "The Tyler Project" was 44 pages long, with a list of 45 parts for the Fiero, ranging from window tint and turn signals to speakers and a leather shifter knob.
It also lists 34 donors who each gave $10 to $100 to overhaul a car owned by a skinny Minnesota kid they have never met in person.
"This is unbelievable," said Dave Gray, owner of Frazee Auto Body & Glass, who is donating his shop space for the project. (Gray and his wife, Karen, also repainted the Fiero's plastic body panels in an eye-popping color that Shipman is keeping a secret until this weekend.)
The show of support has overwhelmed Shipman and his parents, Jay and Daneele Shipman.
"They've donated everything under the sun for this car," his father said.
Among those who'll be working on the car in Frazee starting today is Kris Antuzzi, an 18-year-old from Auburn, Calif., who has four Fieros of his own. He's bringing windshield wipers and a distributor.
"I had a friend go through cancer, and he did it alone. So, I just felt kind of obligated to make sure nobody else went through anything like that ever again," Antuzzi said.
The Fiero forum members are a helpful bunch, he said, recalling how one member secured a place to live for another member who wrote that he had fallen on hard times. Antuzzi said a member he's never met paid for his flight to Fargo Thursday.
"Everybody on there, they're all a great group of people," he said.
Tyler has been gleaning car tips from the forum since he bought his first Fiero at age 15.
Jay Shipman proudly describes his eldest son as a "total outdoorsman-type kid." Pictures on Tyler's CaringBridge site show him popping a wheelie on his motorcycle, holding a 29½-inch walleye and, of course, riding in his Fiero.
"Ever since he got his license, he's kind of been into the Fiero thing," his father said.
The Fiero is an acquired taste: Pontiac produced the car only from 1984 to 1988, and reviews were mixed.
In its list of "The Worst Cars of All Time," Forbes.com called the Fiero "initially unreliable," with Pontiac issuing 403 service bulletins on the 1984 model, plus a recall for engine fires. However, the blurb also noted the car was "quite good" by the end of its unprofitable run.
Tyler initially was drawn to the car "just 'cause of the motor in the back and everything, and not many people had them, and they were different and just kind of a cool car," he said.
His first Fiero was an '84 with a 4-cylinder engine. Two years ago, he bought the more muscular V-6 GT from a friend's uncle.
"The car had been sitting in a field for probably six or seven years when I bought it," he said. "It had moss growing on it. It was just nasty."
The owner told him the engine was blown up, but Tyler said he went to work on it and found the problem to be minor. Within a few hours, he had the engine running, and he's been driving it ever since.
Mid-summer, he started feeling back pain. His dad initially thought Tyler may have strained it while helping him out with his tree removal business.
After a series of tests and doctor visits, Tyler landed at MeritCare's Roger Maris Cancer Center in Fargo. He spent 25 days there, but radiation and chemotherapy failed to stop the synovial sarcoma, which attacks the soft tissue that lines the cavities of joints, tendons and the fluid-filled cushioning sacs between tendons, ligaments and bones, according to the National Cancer Institute.
For Tyler, the Fiero project is a welcome distraction from the cancer that has spread from his spine to his hips, heart, lungs and femurs, giving him just months to live.
"It definitely keeps my mind off it," he said. "This is all I talk about."
His friend Nick Butze of Detroit Lakes, who has served as the contact point for people sending Fiero parts from far and wide, said Tyler is deserving of the support.
"Tyler's a guy that'll help anyone. He's been a real hardworking kid for quite a while," he said, noting Tyler also owns a truck for hauling potatoes.
Tyler, who has a 10-year-old brother and two sisters, ages 8 and 21, said the Fiero will remain in the family when he's gone.
In the middle of the Shipmans' living room sits a hospital bed. On the wall that faces Tyler, above the television and pictures of family and friends, hangs a brown rectangular sign with white lettering.
It reads: "Enjoy this moment ... for this moment is your life."
How to help
A benefit fund has been set up to help defray medical expenses for Tyler Shipman.
Donations may be mailed to: Shipman Benefit, c/o Daneele or Jay Shipman, United Community Bank, 122 W. Main St., P.O. Box 156, Frazee, MN 56544.
For more information, call the bank at (218) 334-5501