It’s not often that a sad story can end happily twice.
But that was the case Friday in the tale of Cleet McGhee, a cancer and dialysis patient whose car was stolen two weeks ago from the South Broadway motel where he lives.
On Friday, McGhee drove home in a better car, courtesy of a local radio station, 104.5 The Fox, and a car dealership, Rusty Eck Ford, where people were moved by his situation.
And he donated his old Lincoln Town Car, recovered by police on Thursday in partially stripped condition, to be fixed up to go to a military veteran in need of transportation.
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“I feel real good,” McGhee said after it was all done. “I’m back driving again. I’m not handicapped no more asking somebody for a ride.”
McGhee’s situation was featured in a June 20 story in The Wichita Eagle. He worked as a cook for Mike’s Steakhouse on South Broadway until about two years ago, when he was diagnosed with bone cancer.
Aggressive chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant put the cancer into remission, but the treatment ordeal wrecked his kidneys and now he has to have dialysis three days a week to stay alive. He’s not strong enough to go back to work and he lives on a small disability payment.
A man and woman stole McGhee’s Town Car on June 14, while McGhee was resting after a grueling dialysis treatment that had caused his legs to cramp up.
The woman reached in the door of his room and took his keys off a chair while he dozed on his bed a few feet away.
It was no small loss. McGhee babied the car and called it his “lifeline,” because he needed it to get to his dialysis appointments at 6 a.m. three times a week.
Radio personality Jan Harrison took up McGhee’s cause and contacted Rusty Eck Ford to see if they could come up with another vehicle, preferably a Lincoln, to make up for McGhee’s loss.
By coincidence, the dealership had just taken a trade-in of a 1999 Lincoln Continental, which they fixed up and presented to McGhee on Friday on-air at the radio station.
“Everybody heard or read the story and was obviously touched by it,” said the dealership’s general manager, Alex Tilma. “We collectively as a group, the owner, everybody that was involved, wanted to try to help him out. We ironically just happened to trade for one (Lincoln), and did the work to it. Things just aligned and the stars were there.”
McGhee gave his recovered car to the station’s Cars 4 Christmas, Cars 4 Heroes program. The station is a partner in that project with All Parts Auto Salvage on South Broadway.
The project accepts donations of used vehicles. Those that can be saved without major work are repaired and given to people in need. Cars that are too worn out to fix are scrapped out and the proceeds donated to the project, said Darrell Rankin, owner of the salvage yard.
When McGhee’s car was found on South Seneca, the thieves had apparently tried to strip it of its cloth top so it would be less recognizable, but they gave up after tearing off part of the roof covering. They also took the stereo, the battery, and apparently some parts from the engine.
The car isn’t drivable, but Rankin said he’s sure he and his staff will be able to fix it and pass it on to a deserving veteran. The next Cars 4 Heroes distribution is planned in September, and Rankin said he can still use a few more donor cars.
McGhee’s story touched many hearts in Wichita.
After the original story ran in The Eagle, about a dozen people contacted the paper to offer to drive him to and from dialysis appointments.
McGhee said one woman knocked on the door of his motel room, gave him a hug, $20 cash and $40 worth of Dillons grocery certificates, and then “disappeared like a puff of smoke.”
Tilma, Harrison and her broadcast partner Phil Thompson gave McGhee the keys to the Continental in a live broadcast from the station’s parking lot Friday morning.
“I am just thrilled that this worked out as well as it did, that Cleet got to see his car again and kind of know where it ended up – and that he had the opportunity to accept a (better) car, since his was in bad shape from being stolen,” Harrison said. “I think it’s phenomenal that Cleet has chosen to donate his original Lincoln to Cars 4 Heroes.”
As Harrison’s eyes teared up, McGhee told her: “Don’t do that. If you do, I’ll start doing it too.”
McGhee said he loved his old car but is happy to be able to pass it on to someone else who needs it.
“I don’t need two cars,” he said. “Somebody’s doing something for me and I’m doing something for somebody else and what goes around comes around.”