More than a dozen friends and family members of a Sonora man worked feverishly over the course of four days last week to grant his final wish just hours before his death.
Robert “Fat Rob” Howard died at his home Monday morning, one week after being diagnosed with terminal cancer. He was 50.
Two days before the diagnosis, Howard told his friend Mike Smith, owner of California Hot Rods in East Sonora, that he felt bad about never getting to hear the engine start on a 1966 Chevelle that he was planning to restore as a gift for his wife.
The two had known each other since 1989 and bonded over their mutual love of cars, so Smith made a promise to his dying friend.
“I told him, ‘I will make you a promise that you will hear that car before you go,’ “ Smith said during an interview at his shop on Thursday.
Howard had been struggling to overcome a cough since December that he at first assumed was only a lingering cold.
Never the type of person who rushes to the doctor over any minor ailment, Howard waited to seek medical attention until earlier this month when he began having trouble breathing and developed a growth under his arm that he believed was just a cyst.
Tests revealed that Howard’s condition was far more dire than he previously thought, and that the growth was actually a tumor. He was also suffering from multiple tumors in his brain, as well as blood clots and masses in his lungs.
Howard’s family was told that he could die at any moment when he was released from Doctor’s Medical Center on the same day he was diagnosed.
When the Chevelle came into Smith’s shop on March 7, he realized there wasn’t much time to make his friend’s dying wish come true based on Howard’s quickly deteriorating condition.
“We had a chair set up for him here (at the shop) and you could tell each day he was getting worse,” Smith said. “A guy said he could get a part we needed by Monday (March 12) and I told him, ‘There is no Monday.’ “
The car came to the shop as only a body and motor that had been assembled by Howard and his wife, Debra “Lil Deb” Howard, 37.
Extensive work would be needed to get the car running, including complete plumbing, brake lines, fuel systems, pedals, wiring, the entire interior, master cylinders, and more.
Smith said the amount of work that needed to be done would typically take at least a month with two people working eight hours each day on alternating shifts.
A group of people came to Smith’s aid that included Fred Guthmiller, Shawn Ambler, Jimbo Fryer, Toby Maciel, Tony Maciel, Tony Giaccone, George Ahearn, Mike Avey, Dan Shimer, Dan Maciel, Nathan Tucker, Harold Tucker, Chris Gipson, Dedra Danicourt, Mark Maddox, Vern Smith, Wyatt Smith, Howard’s stepson, Freddy Caler, and nephew, Gavin Watkins.
The team worked from about 9 a.m. to midnight, Wednesday through Saturday, with Howard at the shop each day. They had the car ready to fire up by about 9:30 p.m. Sunday night.
By that time, Howard’s condition had worsened to the point where he could no longer speak or walk unassisted. Three men had to help Howard get in his wife’s truck to drive him to Smith’s shop.
Smith had wanted to take Howard on a short drive to the gas station close to his shop, but Howard refused to get in the passenger seat.
With a group of loved ones watching, Howard was helped into the driver’s seat and Smith got in on the passenger side. Smith said he leaned over and put his hand on Howard’s to help him turn the ignition over, then helped him put his foot down on the gas pedal.
Smith said the engine let out a roar so loud as Howard hit the throttle that a friend called Smith on his cell phone to tell him he could hear it from his house on top of Big Hill.
“When that was over, I knew it was done,” said Debra Howard. “I knew he shut himself off.”
The couple returned home with the help of friends and Robert Howard was helped into his bed. Debra Howard said she stayed by his side and he died in the early morning hours on Monday.
Debra Howard said so many people came to her house on Monday to pay their respects to her late husband that they ended up having a party in the yard.
She believes her husband hung on for longer than doctors expected to make sure she would be OK, which was affirmed by the amount of people who came together to help with the car.
“It’s amazing the amount of people who came together no questions asked and took time away from their families,” Debra Howard said. “You couldn’t ask for a better group of friends and family.”
The couple met in 2003 while Debra Howard was doing deliveries for NAPA Auto Parts and Robert Howard was working for Mother Lode Motors in East Sonora.
After they got married five years later, Robert Howard purchased the Chevelle that he intended for his wife. He had restored and traded away 11 Chevelles prior to that.
“He had never kept a vehicle for more than a couple of years before he met me,” Debra Howard said.
The couple spent years working on the car piece by piece while Robert Howard ran his own automobile shop. Debra Howard said she remembers one Christmas when he gave her door locks for the car as a present.
Robert Howard is survived by his wife, stepson, Freddy Caler and his fiancée, Vanessa Vela, and parents, Steve and Dolores Nilan.
When asked how Robert Howard would react to what Smith and others did for him in his final days, Caler said: “He would say, ‘Mike pulled it off,’ and then he would do a huge burnout.”
A time of visitation and gathering is scheduled from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. Friday at Terzich and Wilson Funeral Home, 225 E. Rose at Lyons Street in Sonora. A celebration of life will be held on a date that’s still to be determined.
Contact Alex MacLean at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 588-4530.