Aging vehicle back home where it belongs

Published 5:42 pm Saturday, December 8, 2012

Tom Leland and Mike Malepsy stand by a four-wheel-drive 1984 Toyota Tercel SR5 Tuesday at Leland's place north of Albert Lea. Malepsy drove the cherished car from Oregon last week. - Tim Engstrom/Austin Daily Herald

Albert Lea commercial real estate broker Tom Leland normally doesn’t hug his cousin Mike Malepsy.

But he did on Saturday. Malepsy drove a 1984 Toyota Tercel SR5 with nearly 422,000 miles on it from Medford, Ore., to Albert Lea last week. He arrived Friday night, then gave his cousin the surprise Saturday. The car had belonged to his father, Tom Malepsy, who loved to take it hunting and often boasted about what a well-built automobile it was. He loved the car, and before he succumbed to lung cancer in February 2011, he wanted his godson, Leland, to have it.

Mike is a 1968 graduate of Albert Lea High School. He didn’t tell anyone except his wife, Bonnie, about his journey. The drive logged 1,980 miles on the car. Mike said he traveled an average of 45 mph, with cars zooming by at 75 mph. Before hitting the Great Plains in Nebraska, the drive required the little car to do some climbing.

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“Every hill, even if it was a little gradual, I was falling to 30 mph,” he said.

But the Toyota made it, mostly via Interstate 80. He drove 13 hours the first day to reach Wells, Nev., then 13 hours the next day to Cheyenne, Wyo., before going 15 hours to reach Albert Lea. In fact, the most stressful part, he said, was encountering heavy traffic in Omaha and Des Moines.

He estimated that he spent about $185 on gas the entire way. Bonnie said Tom Malepsy liked how little maintenance the car required.

“He loved that car,” she said. Tom Malepsy, who retired in the early 1970s, bought the Tercel used around 1990, Leland estimated.

“He was hooked on Toyotas after that,” Leland said. Of course, his wife, Clarice, drove a Toyota Camry, albeit a newer model. She passed away in August 2004, Tom Malepsy made his living in real estate in Albert Lea before moving to Oregon when he retired, but he maintained ties to Albert Lea, coming back for class reunions and to see family.

He would tow the Toyota behind his motor home on trips. Sometimes, he would head out from Medford, where he lived, in just the car, often going hunting and fishing in eastern Oregon and Wyoming. The Tercel SR5 has four-wheel drive, and that low gear helped him get to off-road places, even in snow.

“The car never got stuck,” Bonnie said. “He would take it in sagebrush and snow.”

Mike added, “It would be pushing the snow with the bumper and we still would make it through.”

Tom even sometimes hauled a 12-foot lake boat atop the car. He also took the car to Baja California in Mexico, to Albert Lea, to Wisconsin and even to Niagara Falls, N.Y.

The mothers of Mike and Tom Leland are sisters, and Leland, a 1978 graduate of Albert Lea High School, is named for Tom Malepsy. Tom Malepsy and Leland’s father, Ken Leland, also were business partners in realty in the 1960s.

Mike met Bonnie while going to college in Colorado and the two have lived in Medford since 1974. They moved there because his father lived there.

Everyone thought Mike was pheasant hunting when he really was driving the Tercel. On Saturday morning he drove to Tom Leland’s home north of Albert Lea. Tom wasn’t there, so he drove to the new Leland Realty office at First Avenue and Main Street and surprised Ken Leland, who let Tom know the Tercel was waiting at the office.

Tom Leland was south of Thompson, Iowa, pheasant hunting. He arrived in Albert Lea around 1:30 p.m. and set his eyes on the cherished automobile that belonged to his godfather.

“We never hug, but I gave him a big hug,” he said.

Tom Leland and Mike both agree they have never encountered a car with that many miles on it. Tom said he looks forward to taking the car hunting and keeping the odometer rolling.