At age 73, at a time when many people are either retired or near it, Tom Wilhite is still at work, running his auto repair business – just like he has for the past 50 years.
Wilhite, owner and operator of Wilhite Auto at 200 W. Washington, plans to keep putting in his 11-hour days for as long as he can.
“I’m going to retire when my health tells me I have to,” he said.
He doesn’t work because he has to, but because he loves working on cars.
“I enjoy it or I would have quit a long time ago,” he said.
As part of his 50 years of business, Wilhite held a mixer Jan. 23 with the Derby Chamber of Commerce, fellow Rotarians and community members. He’s been a long-time member of the Chamber and Derby Rotary, along with the Better Business Bureau. He’s well-known for his straight talking, even brash, manner.
“I’m not bashful,” he said, “especially when something ought to be brought to light. I’ll speak up and ask, ‘Hey, what about this?’”
As he put it: “I’m well-known for asking questions.”
He did run for City Council last year in Ward 4, but lost that bid.
Other than speaking out, Wilhite stays busy with his repair jobs. Reflecting on a half century of work, he credits his clients.
“I have a lot of good customers,” he said, “and appreciate their loyalty.”
His business rules are pretty simple: “Treat people like I want to be treated –fairly.”
He also believes in pricing his service and products correctly.
“I don’t give anything away, but don’t hold anyone up either,” he said. “I've got to make enough money to keep the doors open.”
Wilhite doesn’t believe in discounting his work and said providing quality service has won out in the long run.
He can’t compete against the big box retailers – and doesn’t try.
Wilhite believes he likely has the oldest Derby business still run by the same owner. There may be other, older businesses, but they’ve changed hands or management, he believes.
In order to survive for so long, he’s had to change with market conditions.
One way he’s done that is to carve out a market niche as a high performance auto repair business, taking cars with factory parts and upgrading them. He also has worked on a lot of classic cars that appear regularly at local car shows.
Cars have changed much since the 1970s with higher quality, and the business isn’t as lucrative as it used to be, he said.
“It’s not uncommon to have a car with 150,000 miles with just a few service jobs on it,” he said.
Also, new car buyers often take out an extended warranty, which cuts into his business.
Wilhite works on all makes and models but stays away from European vehicles, which he said aren’t worth the investment in different tools.
Although he’s had as many as three employees at one time, he now has one, Mike Pierson, who has 30 years’ experience, 15 of those with Wilhite.
“I didn’t make as much money with three and had a lot more headaches,” he said.
During the years, he estimates he’s had about two dozen employees come and go, but he maintained good relationships with all of them.
Originally from Yates Center, Wilhite got an early taste of the trade as his parents ran an auto repair business. He started out sweeping the shop floor and was fixing small engines at 11.
“I grew up in the shop,” he said.
He continued his passion for working on all things automotive and attended the GM training center. At 20, he moved to Wichita, worked briefly at Boeing, and then decided at age 23 that it was time to go out on his own.
He hasn’t looked back.
Wilhite opened a shop in Derby at K-15 and Meadowlark and was there until he moved to his current location in October 1977. The site has worked out well, he said, even if it is almost on the railroad tracks, making it tough to talk when a train goes by.
Reflecting on the past 50 years, Wilhite said it has been a successful career, and when the time comes to slow down and retire, he will rent the business out or sell it.
“I’m not rich, but I’ve made a good living,” he said.
The images haven’t ever lost their impact for Stephanie Bergmann.
Whether it was the smoldering rubble of the Twin Towers in the days after 9/11 or seeing the impact of the Oklahoma City bombing and the lives that both events took, they’re each a part of a detailed canvas that was her television career.
Some of these impactful images won’t ever be erased, but the longtime anchor also saw relationships and vast storytelling envelope her time at KSN News 3 in Wichita.
The Derby resident put a close to her 30-year career on Jan. 8, but it also has opened the door to a time of gratitude and reflection.
After 15 months at KSNT in Topeka, Bergmann made the switch to KSN in September 1990. Eager for opportunity, the young journalist became a field reporter for three years before taking over anchor duties for its morning show.
The events of those moments and the years since had an indelible mark on Bergmann’s career.
There have been the natural disasters, such as severe weather, but also the trip down I-135 to cover the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing. She witnessed both ends of the spectrum through sorrow and resolve.
“I’ve witnessed some historic events and at the time you’re working and you’re thinking about what you need to be doing to get the story,” she said.
“Now that time has passed, I look back on some of that and know that I was privileged to be there and to witness some of that even though it was heartbreaking.”
She made the trip to New York City after 9/11 with local firefighters, documenting one of the most devastating attacks on American soil.
Still in those moments, Bergmann said she felt driven to deliver the news as complete and as timely as possible, understanding that questions hadn’t been answered or that the threat of more attacks hadn’t been ruled out.
“With 9/11, there was that feeling of not knowing what was coming next,” Bergmann said. “For a young reporter, it was just so fresh and we hadn’t had anything of that magnitude happen before… to not really know what was still to come was really unnerving.”
Television can be bittersweet, due to its necessity to cover events such as these. However, Bergmann mentioned the exciting side, noting the progression of the city of Wichita and its river corridor.
She recalled the excitement of building the Hyatt hotel and the vast expansion of Old Town. Now with the addition of retail, culinary areas with a brand-new ballpark, she senses the excitement has been driven into the community.
“They’ve been talking about developing [around] the river for so long,” she said. “… To see Lawrence Dumont leveled, the new stadium and the steps taken to bring in new business around that area, I hope it has the momentum it needs to finally do something with our river.”
Bergmann made the rounds inside the KSN studios, anchoring each newscast that it offers before resigning earlier this month.
While watching the dedication tape that played at the end of her television tenure, Bergmann admits that some of the moments were tough to recall due to the number of stories she covered over the past three decades.
She also noted the technological changes, remembering the days of having black carbon on her fingers as she put scripts together for co-workers, directors and producers via typewriters.
“It almost sounds medieval compared to the computers we use today, but I even remember getting the first cell phone in a bag,” she added.
For the first time since the late 1980s, Bergmann enters a new career field as the marketing director for independent living for Wichita Presbyterian Manor.
She said she feels rejuvenated as she embarks on her first career change since 1988.
“I have been doing the same thing for so long that I was getting a little burned out,” she said. “I wanted to do something different and I thought if I ever was going to do it, I need to do it now while I still feel energetic and young, relatively speaking.”
With the change comes a multitude of thanks from the longtime television anchor and reporter. Bergmann stated the calls and emails received while working at KSN won’t soon be forgotten.
“I’ve had some of the same viewers that have been with me on this journey,” she said. “When I got married and had my daughter, they had written in and sent me notes of encouragement… even though you can’t see every viewer; through emails and letters, you develop this relationship with them that has carried me through the decades.”
Through the chapters of her career, a near constant has been calling 67037 home.
Having grown up on a farm in Mulvane, the longtime anchor and reporter felt peace in calling Derby home.
“For all but six months [of returning to the area in 1990], I’ve lived in Derby,” she said. “I’ve always loved it because it has that small town feel where everyone is very friendly and close knit. It’s also close enough to Wichita where if you work there or want to do something there, it’s very convenient.”
Bergmann has been active in the community, sending her kids to St. Mary’s Parish Catholic School and also attending the church with her husband and two children.
She also commended Derby’s ability to retain and also regain its youth, helping the community thrive.
“I’m a small-town girl and it’s perfect for me,” she said. “We’ve made so many friends here through our church and through the kids going to school at St. Mary’s before they went to Kapaun. This really feels like home and I knew wherever [my next job was], I wasn’t going to leave Derby.”