MT. ANGEL - If Hollywood ever gets around to making a movie on the life of Keenan Foraker, they could call it "Coal Miner's Son."
Foraker, who has lived in Oregon since 1971, grew up in the coal mining country of West Virginia and Ohio. He says he is related to the famously feuding Hatfield and McCoy clans of the region.
The life of a coal miner never appealed to Foraker. He said he didn't see his father much when he was growing up, because he was always at work in the mine. His father worked long and hard in the mines until he was 75, and later died of black lung disease.
"He did what he had to do to feed his family," Foraker said. "I've been down there, a mile underground (in the coal mine). Scary. That's why I'm not back there."
In the early 1960s Foraker's family moved to California so his father could work on a dam construction. After the dam was completed, the family moved back to Appalachia, but Foraker joined the military in 1965 instead of returning to West Virginia. During his Air Force stint, he went to Guam and spent two years in Puerto Rico before discharge.
After studying automotive mechanics at a tech school in St. Louis, Mo., Foraker moved to Oregon, married the former Jan Miller, a Silverton native, and landed a job at Hershberger Motors in Woodburn. He worked there and at E.H. Burrell Auto Parts in Salem for the better part of a decade before he decided to open up his own shop, Bethany Motors, at Bethany corner on Hazelgreen Road.
When Earl Hartman closed his Chevy dealership in Silverton, Foraker relocated his shop to the Hartman Building on South Water Street. He kept the business going for nearly 20 years, until the building changed hands. Foraker lost the lease and had to close the shop in August 1997.
He landed a maintenance job with the Benedictine Sisters of Mt. Angel shortly after the shop closed, and he has never looked back.
"This job to me is one in a million," he said. "There's no more like it and I got it. I enjoy working here every day." Foraker loves the variety in his work at the Sisters' monastery. He says his job is basically that of handyman. He maintains and repairs cars, keeps everything mechanical running smoothly at the monastery, and figures out how to repair anything and everything.
"It's always something different - they trust me 100 percent and that means a lot. Plus I get a paid vacation and that is something I never had when I was running my business."
Foraker relishes those vacations, too. For the past 10 years he has organized an annual car trip for himself, his wife, and other folks. He maps out a route to and from Glacier or Yosemite National Park, for example, and coordinates the trip for the group, which includes "anyone who wants to go."
The trips give him a chance to get his vintage autos out on the open road. Currently, Foraker owns a 1937 Chevy pickup truck and a 1934 Ford Roadster. He built both vehicles himself at no small cost of time and money. The '34 Roadster is worth about $49,000, Foraker says, and it took him eight years to complete. He believes the unique, finished product is well worth the investment.
He already has his sights set on his next project: a 1932 Dearborn Deuce. Foraker calls the '32 Ford "the most sought-after vehicle there ever was." He plans to build the body and add a Mustang GT fuel-injected engine to it.
Foraker's passion for cars also prompts him to stay active in the Silverton Flywheels, a group of 80 or 90 car lovers who put on vintage car shows at Homer Davenport Days, Silverton's First Friday celebrations and at other events in Molalla and Macleay.
Foraker and the Flywheels club also raise money for a scholarship fund named after former member Jon Dunn, who was killed in a motorcycle accident. The scholarships are awarded to Silverton High School students who have excelled in automotive classes. Foraker estimates that they have given away $20,000 in scholarship monies since the fund was established 14 years ago.
"We raise funds through a beer sign auction at the Macleay car show we do. We always need old beer signs if people have them and want to donate to a good cause."
At 64 Foraker shows no signs of slowing down, either at his day job with the Sisters, or his labor of love building and restoring cars.