Teen dirties hands, lands in spotlight
The engine sputtered and spit, and for one promising moment, it even grumbled and growled before fading into a wheezing noise that marked its death.
Sitting atop the tractor, a soot-covered teen manipulated gears and gadgets in an attempt to resurrect the machine. Then something sparked, and the motor rumbled to life.
With the engine's roaring, a flame ignited within 18-year-old Andrew Conrad, and it burned just as red as the 1942 Farmall B he straddled.
"It was the best experience I ever had in my life, and I have the fire in me to do it all over again," he said.
On May 8, the Scales Mound High School senior started up his tractor for the first time since yanking out the engine, dissecting it, repairing it and depositing it back into the belly of the metal version of a farmer's best friend. Since then, the son of Alan and Mary Jane Conrad has been on the ride of his life as he has earned his classmates' admiration, gained the respect of farm mechanics across the Midwest and impressed five judges enough to earn a top eight finish in the National Chevron Delo Tractor Restoration Competition.
"You're darn right it is," Conrad said.
The process started with one question.
"I wanted to know what I wanted to do for the rest of my life," Conrad said.
He expressed an interest in farm mechanics to his industrial arts teacher, Leslie Virtue. The instructor's response was to offer his student a dilapidated tractor that had been in the Virtue family since World War II. The 67-year-old tractor had not been in the fields since 1989, and it showed.
"Well, I says to him, 'Yeah, I'll give it a shot,'" Conrad said. "Because, you see, I wanted to do it to help me make a career decision. That was the big reason."
For an estimated 166 hours and 15 minutes, the senior contemplated. That was the time required to rip the tractor apart, put it back together again and give it a new coat of paint.
"You can't change everything in a day," Conrad said. "It takes time."
And money. Virtue footed the more than $4,000 bill.
"He was my angel investor," Conrad said.
But the real pay-off came when judges accepted Conrad's application to the national tractor restoration competition.
For several weeks, Conrad composed a 12-section workbook detailing his tasks from September 2007 to Aug. 13 of this year. The workbook advanced him to the national competition where he gave an oral presentation in front of several judges and earned eighth place in the nation.
"I was close to the top three," Conrad said. "That's just my personal opinion, though."
Top spot or not, Conrad accomplished his mission. While scouting for tractor parts, he and Virtue traveled to Calmar, Iowa, where the senior scored a tour of the Northeast Iowa Community College's John Deere Tech Program.
"I'm kind of a red guy, but you can see I'm going to John Deere school," he said.
So while Conrad might be going green in the tractor sense, the red one still sits in his garage, waiting to find its place in the fields once more.
"Mr. Virtue said I can keep it until the dust settles," Conrad said. "And to be honest with you, I am not quite ready to get rid of it. I'm sort of attached to it, you know? In fact, I am looking to do another one, if you know of anybody."
(Photo Credit: Nick Smith)