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John & Tom Sweet

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Help is on the way!

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For Owatonna brothers John and Tom Sweet, the decade of the 1980’s was a very moving period in their lives.




“Remember, I had that repair shop behind the Salvation Army….that was in ’82,” John reminded his brother. “Yeah, so then it must have been about 1984 when I joined in. Yes! That’s when we were in the shop at 105 South Oak (current Pizza Hut location). We did auto repair, and remember? We sold gas and it was 89 cents a gallon,” Tom chimed in.


And the banter between the two goes on, reminiscing about the spaces they’ve occupied in their almost-40 years in business. That same year, 1984, was significant also because they purchased their first tow trucks and added “Towing” to the business name. Several more moves and almost 20 years later, they landed in their current location on Cedardale Drive.


“It was different running a repair shop when we first got started,” John recalled. “Cars were made of good, solid materials. Parts could be repaired and replaced. You watched your belts and kept your oil good and clean and the car was good to go for another fifty thousand miles.”


“Now, it’s all plastics and breakable stuff. Nothing is made to be repaired any more, just replaced. And the systems that used to run with fans and belts and gauges are now all controlled by computers,” Tom finished.


The brothers are no strangers to hard work. Their father, Rollie, was a beat cop who was a familiar face on the streets of downtown Owatonna as he walked his daily route. “Dad showed us what hard work was. There weren’t enough patrol cars for everyone on the force, so some of the guys walked their beats. Dad missed family events, holidays….but he never complained,” Tom said. “Even though it’s a different kind of work we do, the life is still the same. We’ve missed the same things with our families, but I guess that’s one of the things we learned from Dad. Dedication.”


“In the winter months, there are stretches where we don’t work just hours on end. We work DAYS on end,” John said, emphasizing their dedication to their work. “But what makes it happen is knowing our families are behind us, supporting us, because they know we’re out helping people. And even though we don’t consciously acknowledge it, we’re always hoping that someone out there will do the same for either of us or our families if we’re ever in trouble,” said John.


The Sweets have seen their share of grisly accident scenes over the years, and it is a subject neither is comfortable discussing. A lot of times, they said, the tow vehicle is the first to arrive on an accident scene. They described the anguish of not being able help a victim who is crying out in pain. “Sometimes all you can do is hold their hand,” until rescue crews arrive, the brothers shared.


Both Sweets agreed there are many more bad accidents – fatal accidents – than there were in their early days with the tow trucks. “Today’s vehicles are lighter and go faster. People are in a hurry, they’re distracted. There are also many more drivers on the road than there used to be. They keep raising the speed limits,” John said.


And don’t get them started about drivers with cell phones.


Tom said he’s noticed that even though it is against the law to be on your phone while driving, “Almost everyone you see, especially on the highways, is on the phone,” he said. While the men both prefer hands-free operation of their own cell phones, neither predict any change in prosecution of offenders or new legislation until, as Tom put it, “something horrible happens. A famous person or a big-wig somewhere will be seriously injured or killed in an accident where it could be proved he or she was on the phone at the time of impact. Wouldn’t it just be easier to see the sense in following a good law?” he said, referring to Minnesota’s hands-free law.


John hopes that one day the designers and builders of both automobiles and mobile communication devices will get together and design technology that ties one to the other. “Maybe it would be a chip in the car and a chip in the phone that would communicate or monitor it. When the car reaches a certain speed, or maybe even when it is in motion, the phone would become inoperable. The only way the phone would work in the vehicle would be when the vehicle is stopped. I don’t know….but I’d sure like to invent it,” he mused.


The Sweets also have an impound lot on the south side of their property, noting that while their lot isn’t the only impound lot in Steele County, most of the lots appear to be full.


“That’s the thing about this business,” John said. “Our six people aren’t the only mechanics in town. This isn’t the only repair shop. There are a bunch more guys with tow trucks out there than there ever were. Cars are impounded everywhere. We aren’t the only guys in this business. I guess that’s why we work so hard to create a good impression, to do good work as quickly as we can, and to charge an honest price for it.”


Tom finished his brother’s thought. “There are a lot of great guys and gals working in shops all around town. We all want the same customers they do, but I like to think there’s something more we offer that keeps us busy all the time. I think it’s that feeling of dedication we learned from Dad. And it must be working, because we’ve never sent anyone home for the day because there wasn’t anything to do,” he laughed.

 - Authored By Lisa Richmond

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