WEST LAWN — Jeanne Zasadil doesn’t look like most automotive mechanics, but after four years of hanging around a garage, the petite senior citizen can easily hold her own in any conversation about cars.
As one of many Chicago seniors who have found a sense of community inside a Chicago Park District auto shop, Zasadil said she now possesses an automotive fluency she never imagined she would have.
“It’s given me the confidence to be able to deal with really complicated [car] problems,” she said.
For that, she credits Walter Popiela.
A Park District employee since 1977, Popiela pitched the idea of automotive repair classes to the agency in 1980. Since then, he’s headed up a variety of classes in a tiny auto shop in the middle of West Lawn Park.
From the outside, the cinder block building could easily be mistaken for an equipment shed. But inside, its walls are adorned with colorful car diagrams and photographs of family members, friends and students from 35 years of classes.
“I have seniors that have been coming here since 1985, 1990,” Popiela said. “They feel comfortable when I’m telling them what needs to be done [to their cars] because I’m not in business — I’m not a repair shop.”
As the Park District’s sole automotive teaching facility, the West Lawn location hosts classes for would-be mechanics of all ages and skill levels. While the Friday afternoon class is normally dominated by seniors, Popiela said all are welcome.
On one recent frigid afternoon, a dozen seniors gathered around a pair of tables in the classroom area of the shop. Among them were retired teachers, police officers, real estate investors and a recent widow who was hoping to learn how to properly service her car.
During a round of introductions, one woman mentioned she had been attending Popiela’s class for more than 20 years.
“And she’s a newcomer,” he jokingly interjected.
Zasadil said most new participants register for one of Popiela’s classes out of necessity before being drawn into the community that has blossomed in the shop.
“They’re good connections,” said the four-year regular.
During the recent class, the group was deep in a discussion on gasoline injection systems when a latecomer wandered in with a box of doughnuts under his arm. He was greeted with cheers from the group.
When Popiela regained their attention, he went on to cover topics ranging from city gasoline regulations to differences in automotive oils.
Students who have specific issues they’d like discussed are invited to pull their cars into the adjoining garage for a live demonstration. Others bring estimates from nearby repair shops to run them by Popiela and make sure their mechanics are on the level.
While the shop isn’t equipped to perform most repairs, Popiela said his students appreciate the opportunity to augment their automotive literacy so that they’re better prepared to maintain their cars or discuss their issues with mechanics.
Most don’t mind the occasional doughnut either.
Classes are offered year-round in both afternoon and evening sessions. More information is available at chicagoparkdistrict.com and at West Lawn Park, 4233 W. 65th St.
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