LAKE CITY -- During the last 30 years, Tom Heffernan Ford on North Lakeshore Drive has donated more than $200,000 worth of cars to the Lake City Fire Department for its Fireman’s Dance and raffle.

“I’ve been selling cars for more than 60 years,” owner Tom Heffernan said. “When I first started selling cars for a guy up in the Cities, he said if you want to take something out of the community, you’ve got to give something back. I furnish a car every year for the fire department. They raffle it off and use the money to buy equipment.”

“The Fireman’s Dance is our only fundraiser that we do throughout the year,” said Greg Siever, Lake City Fire Department chief. “It’s a huge deal to have that kind of support from a business owner. We have up to 20 prizes in the raffle, but Tom’s is always the grand prize every year.”

Heffernan has also made sure that the Red Wing Public Schools has cars for driver’s education, offering the Community Education program has a reasonable leasing option for the past 20 years.

“It has worked out good,” he said. “They have always taken good care of the cars. They’ve never dinged one up yet.”

Learning to drive properly is an important skill, Heffernan said, and he is happy to have the students learning to drive in a Ford.

“Tom works really with us,” said Marcia Jensen, Red Wing Driver’s Education Program director. “He leases us a car by the day. If we don’t drive it, he doesn’t charge us. Most people wouldn’t personalize a lease that way.”

Tom Heffernan has been leasing cars to the Red Wing Driver’s Education Program for over 20 years.   Steve Gardiner / RiverTown Multimedia
Tom Heffernan has been leasing cars to the Red Wing Driver’s Education Program for over 20 years. Steve Gardiner / RiverTown Multimedia

Supporting events and activities in Lake City, Red Wing and the surrounding area is important to Heffernan.

“I donate to every organization,” he said. “If kids are selling stuff, I always buy or donate oil changes or something. In the community, we are not isolated. We are one family, and we’ve got to take care of the family.”

That generosity has been noticed by others. On Jan. 25, the Lake City Chamber of Commerce held its annual banquet and for the first time gave out community awards. Tom Heffernan Ford received the award in the Small Business category.

Heffernan was pleased with the honor, which he says means “I am doing a good job and helping people every day. I love the people, and I would do anything to help them.”

The car business has been Heffernan’s life. He started working on a used car lot on University Avenue in St. Paul when he was 17. He graduated from high school in 1952 and went to work there full time. He was drafted into the Army in 1953 as a military policeman, and stationed in New York in 1954. He was sent to Korea in 1955.

As a military policeman, Tom Heffernan was stationed in New York and Korea.   Photo courtesy of Tom Heffernan
As a military policeman, Tom Heffernan was stationed in New York and Korea. Photo courtesy of Tom Heffernan

When he was discharged, he returned to car sales for the next 18 years. He liked it, but what he really wanted was to own a dealership. He couldn’t afford one in the Twin Cities, so he started looking around.

“I found this place in Lake City for sale,” Heffernan said. “I had a home and a lake home, and I had to sell both of them and use the money to buy the dealership. Because I sold my lake home, I had to be by a lake, and I found this dealership near Lake Pepin, the most beautiful lake in the world.”

Moving to a smaller town in 1973 inspired Heffernan to create a line he has used in every radio and print ad he has placed since then. “Cars and trucks are like eggs, they’re cheaper in the country.”

For 47 years, Heffernan has run his business at the same location. He has been successful, and during that time, he sometimes found himself thinking about the experiences he had in Korea, the people he met there. He wondered what it would be like to return and see the country again.

His wife, Marie, did some searching and found a Korean government program that would help veterans return. They would pay part of the airfare and provide lodging, meals, and tours while in Korea. Heffernan signed up for one of the groups.

In September 2018, he and Marie spent 10 days visiting Korea, including the capital city of Seoul and the 38th Parallel dividing North and South Korea.

“When I was in Korea, it was just a terrible country,” Heffernan said. “The country was poor. There was no housing. When I went back, it was a chance to see how far they have come. It was a country that had nothing, and now they are an industrial power. It is a really nice place to visit now. It is beautiful.”

In 2018, Tom Heffernan returned to Korea and visited a memorial in Seoul.   He placed flowers at the markers for soldiers from Minnesota and Wisconsin who were killed in the conflict.   Photo courtesy of Tom Heffernan
In 2018, Tom Heffernan returned to Korea and visited a memorial in Seoul. He placed flowers at the markers for soldiers from Minnesota and Wisconsin who were killed in the conflict. Photo courtesy of Tom Heffernan

Heffernan said South Koreans love Americans and often told him how grateful they are for America’s help during the Korean War. At the airport, he was wearing his Korean Veteran hat, and a woman pointed at him while talking to her son. Heffernan approached her, and she said, “I was telling him that if it wasn’t for you, we would be under communist rule right now.”

The veterans also received handwritten letters from Korean high school students. One line from the letter given to Heffernan said, “Your heroism and sacrifice helped our South Korea to be a better and safer country than before.”

At age 86, Heffernan still spends each day at work, although he said they are now half days.

“I’m here from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. That’s half a day,” he said, laughing. “Why would I retire? I love my customers. I meet people and talk to them all day long. What better job could you find than that?”