Frazee teen with cancer, Tyler, gets big assist with his prized Fiero

4:51 PM, Jan 4, 2010   |    comments
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  • Tyler Shipman featured in "The Tyler Project"
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  • Timelapse video of the Fiero restoration
  • FRAZEE, Minn. -- Some young men like to talk sports. Tyler Shipman's favorite topic is a car model that last rolled down an assembly line three years before he was born.

    "I got my first one when I was 15," says Tyler about the Pontiac Fiero with which he fell in love after seeing one on the internet. "They were something different ... they drive really sweet."

    General Motors pulled the plug on the sporty mid-engine two-seater in 1988 after a four year run. Quality issues dogged the car from the start. Tyler didn't care.

    In August, before starting his final year at Frazee High School, Tyler had his senior portraits taken in front of his third Fiero, a white 1986 GT. The photo captured the smile of a young man who hadn't a care in the world. He'd just turned 18.

    Within weeks Tyler learned he had an aggressive cancer called synovial sarcoma.

    Two failed rounds of chemotherapy, fifteen radiation treatments and now Tyler's home near Frazee, Minnesota is also his hospice.

    Jay Shipman, Tyler's dad, says the doctors told his son, "'you can either die from this cancer in the hospital with every treatment under the sun, or you can go home and try to enjoy what time you have left.'"

    Tyler has opted to be home as he tries "to keep my mind on something else, like the car."

    The car -- nice as Tyler had polished it up for the senior portrait, it was still pretty ragged. Tyler had paid just $150 dollars for the Fiero he'd been slowly restoring. But slowly was no good anymore.

    Two days before Halloween Tyler logged onto an internet Fiero forum and shared his regrets about his unfinished car. "Hey guys I'm a total Fiero-head," he wrote. "I have an '86 Fiero GT that I have been slowly fixing up and well, now here I sit at the hospital with cancer and they can't treat it."

    Tyler expressed his hope that there might be "some way to get it restored" before he was gone.

    A forum member with the screen name "Hulki U.My-BFF" soon wrote back: "I'll do what I can."  He was not alone in that pledge for long.

    Three weeks and two days after Tyler's internet post, the parking lot looks like a mid '80s Pontiac dealership at Frazee Auto Body and Glass. Fieros are everywhere. Inside sits Tyler's Fiero in pieces.

    Mid-engine, two-seaters aren't typically classified as family cars, but family may be the perfect word for the two dozen strangers who have arrived in Frazee -- to fulfill Tyler's dream.

    "Never spoke to him, never chatted with him, but just read his story and something had to be done," says Fiero owner Stuart Lowery. Lowery flew to Minnesota from "Cleburne, Texas, just south of Dallas Fort Worth."

    John Panicci flew from West Palm Beach, Florida. "He asked for help and we're here to do it," he says.

    Rick Manning of Downingtown, Pennsylvania and Kris Antuzzi of Colfax, California couldn't afford to fly to Minnesota, until other Fiero owners found out and like magic plane tickets appeared.

    "The excuse is the Fiero, but we're here for Tyler," says Jeff Wendt, a Fiero owner from Eden Prairie who cancelled family plans to help work on Tyler's car.

    The final piece of the puzzle was put in place when Karen and Dave Gray agreed to let the Fiero owners use their Frazee body shop to restore Tyler's car. Dave also volunteered to repaint the previously white Fiero. "He wanted it yellow, so we thought we'll make it yellow," smiles Dave.

    Just one person was missing as volunteers worked side-by-side on the car: the Fiero owner who got the whole thing started, "Hulki U.My-BFF."

    Hulki couldn't make it. He was busy -- in Al Kut, Iraq.

    "I'm a sergeant with the Pennsylvania National Guard," explains Andrew Weigel -- known on the Fiero forum as Hulki -- as he watches the rebuilding of Tyler's car on an internet webcam from his base in Iraq.

    Until three weeks ago he'd never heard of Tyler Shipman. "When I asked him how old he was and I found out he was 18, I had to do something, it was a calling," says Sgt. Weigel, who has five Fieros of his own at home along with a son a year younger than Tyler.

    From Iraq Sgt. Weigel had put out an internet call for some parts and soon both parts and people were arriving in Frazee.

    "The entire town of Frazee can say all of these strangers showed up and did this for one of there own, so there is hope in this world," says Chris Kliewer from Inver Grove Heights, who did much of the organizing stateside.

    They had started at seven on a Saturday morning. Two dozen volunteers, with $4000 worth of donated parts, worked 24 hours without sleep to be ready by Sunday morning when Tyler arrived for the roll out of the Fiero. View a timelapse video of the transformation.

    "He was up at six this morning," says Daneele Shipman, Tyler's mom. "That just shows you how excited he was to get here."

    Tyler wasn't the only one. A couple hundred family members, friends and Frazee residents gathered around Tyler as a garage door rolled open and the car rolled out.

    "Ladies and gentlemen, The Tyler Project," announced Kliewer as the crowd applauded before swarming swarmed the gleaming yellow Fiero.

    As Tyler smiled his approval, 6000 miles away Sgt. Weigel watched on a webcam before also giving his approval: "It looks great."

    Plans had called for Tyler's father to take his son for a ride, until Tyler decided that wasn't going to do.

    "There's no words to describe what it means," said Daneele after watching her son move from his wheel chair to the driver's seat of the Fiero and then drive through the parting crowd for a spin with his dad. "When I saw him get in the car..." her voice breaks, as Daneele holds back tears. "I'm speechless I guess. I don't know."

    Three weeks and three days past Tyler's internet post two dozen sleepless Fiero owners fully understood why they had to come. "Wow!" say Panicci grinning ear to ear, "That was worth it."

    Tyler's family will keep praying for a miracle. And why not? They've been granted one already.





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