He wears a shirt with his first name stitched on the breast pocket, but Tom Keegan otherwise defies the stereotype of the gruff-and-greasy mechanic.
Bespectacled and soft-spoken with a dry wit, Keegan opened Hyde Park Auto Service in 2003, betting that his growing neighborhood would support an honest local shop. It turned into a prosperous 19-year run on the corner of 39th and Walnut streets.
To the great dismay of his many loyal customers, Keegan will close the garage doors permanently this Friday. He’s retiring, selling the building and auctioning off all the car parts, tools and equipment inside.
“It’s just become a seven-day-a-week kind of job for me,” Keegan, 65, said last week, leaning against the big wooden front desk at Hyde Park Auto Service’s office. “And I didn’t want to leave this job feeling like I hated it. I’d rather just kinda go out on my own terms here.”
The son of a heavy equipment mechanic on Long Island, Keegan always tinkered with cars. But he went for an English major in college — he mentioned attending an undergraduate poetry workshop at the University of Iowa — and later joined the Peace Corps. He trained mechanics in Togo, and somewhere in Mali there are folks who can properly turn a socket wrench due to his work with the U.S. Agency for International Development in that country.
Keegan landed in Kansas City in 1987. Why KC? “It had something to do with a leggy redhead,” he said.
He worked in sales at first, fixing cars on the side. But the repair requests kept coming in.
“Really what happened is that I had six or seven cars out front of my house that I was working on at any given time,” Keegan said. “And between my wife and the city and the neighbors, it was decided that I should open my own garage and leave the neighborhood in peace.”
Hyde Park wasn’t quite so bustling back then.
“This area was like an automobile repair desert when Tom opened up,” said Katie Levi, whose Ford Ranger was in the garage getting the Hyde Park Auto Service treatment one last time. “All the neighbors flocked to him and kept coming back. It was so nice to be able to drop your car off and walk home, then walk back up to get it. It’s a big bummer about the shop. We’re really going to miss it.”
It was just Keegan in those early years. But he eventually staffed up to four mechanics and an office manager. Keegan’s trained a lot of mechanics at Hyde Park Auto Service, many of whom had little experience when they arrived.
“I just showed up and asked if they needed some help, and Tom gave me a shot,” said Jovanni Hamilton, who’s been at the shop for a couple years now. “I learned everything I know from Tom and the other guys here.”
“It’s always been that kind of profession, I think,” Keegan said. “They walk in and say, ‘I can change oil,’ and we kind of go from there. We’ve had a lot of young men and women show up that way. And many of them have moved on and gone to other places.”
As always, good mechanics are hard to find, and Keegan was besieged with calls from other shops after announcing in early May that he was shutting down. “They all wanted to know what was happening with my mechanics,” he said. “So everybody here already has new jobs lined up. I’m glad I’m not leaving them in the lurch.”
The customers are another matter. He’s been referring some in the neighborhood to Value Auto Clinic, over on Gillham Road and 29th Street, and others to MD Auto Repair (formerly the Muffler Doctor) at Troost and 79th streets. “I’m going to make a list of shops and put it on Facebook when I get some time,” Keegan said.
Keegan, who owns four vintage Cadillacs (1939, 1970, 1976, 1979) and is the webmaster of the Cadillac Club of Kansas City, is wrapping up work on a few special “project cars” before Friday’s closing. One is a customer’s 1929 Cord that’s destined for an art deco exhibition opening in July at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.
“We’re redoing all the chrome and paint and spiffing it up, getting the leak stopped so it won’t drip on those nice marble floors of the Nelson,” Keegan said.
Otherwise, it’s business as usual. The Prius in the garage needed an oil change and the passenger-side headlights had been going out, Keegan told Hamilton, passing him a set of keys from the key rack. And summer’s coming, which means the air-conditioning jobs have started to roll in.
“I wanted to be a place where you can get your tire plugged or the light bulb fixed or get your teenager’s car checked out when it was time for them to start driving,” Keegan said, a Castrol clock ticking on the wall behind him. “I just wanted to be a neighborhood garage. And I was glad to see that this neighborhood seemed to respond to that.”
This story was originally published May 24, 2022 5:00 AM.