Best of America

Best Highway Helper

One thousand forty dollars: That’s how much Thomas Weller shelled out to keep his gas tank full in July 2008. The self-employed 60-year-old mechanic doesn’t have to spend his spare time on the road, but it’s a hard habit to break. Since 1966, he has cruised the San Diego highways looking for motorists flummoxed by flat tires and dead batteries. He pulls up in what was once a 1955 Ford station wagon (“I put it together from pieces”), grabs his tools, and fixes the problem-at no charge.

“My wife does worry about me, but I’m pretty careful,” he says. One 1970 stop still gives him chills. A car had broken down in the middle of the road, and the family were waiting in it for help. He persuaded them to stay behind a pillar while he drove to a store to call the highway patrol. When he came back minutes later, all he could see was black smoke where the car had been. Another vehicle had hit it, killing the other driver.

Weller was once a stranded motorist himself. Driving in an Illinois blizzard when he was 16, he got stuck in a snowdrift. The man who pulled him out waved off payment, saying, “Just pass it on.” And that’s exactly what Weller is doing. His business cards don’t have his name or number on it, just this: “Assisting you has been my pleasure. I ask for no payment other than for you to pass on the favor by helping someone in distress that you may encounter.”

Once in a while, someone recognizes the “San Diego Highwayman” and his pieced-together vehicle at a gas station and insists on filling the tank, which eases the sting of fuel costs. After all, it’ll take more than high gas prices to stop Weller. “It gives me a reason to get up,” he says. “This is what I do, and I’m good at it.”

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