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Mike Balk demonstrates the pipe bender that was used to make exhaust systems at Balk Automotive. (Brian Korthals/Daily Globe)
Mike Balk demonstrates the pipe bender that was used to make exhaust systems at Balk Automotive. (Brian Korthals/Daily Globe)

Exhausting work: Mike Balk retires from muffler business

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Worthington, 56187

Worthington Minnesota 300 11th Street / P.O. Box 639 56187

WORTHINGTON -- Mike Balk never strayed too far from the neighborhood where he grew up.

Sure, he spent three years serving in the U.S. Army overseas, but then it was back to Worthington, and eventually the business his dad started just across the street from the family homestead.

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Now, after 48½ years, Balk has turned the key on the family business for a last time and is officially retired.

The ol' neighborhood

As a kid growing up on nearby Okabena Street, Mike remembers there was a different operation on the spot where his dad, Leo, would eventually start his own business.

"Lee Shell had a gas station right there," explained Mike about the property alongside the railroad tracks on Worthington's First Avenue. "Us kids would go over there for our pop and candy bars, and a couple of times Lee even put me to work."

Shell had a fuel tank that wasn't hooked up to the pumps, so he'd enlist Mike to transfer the gas.

"I'd sit over there for an afternoon pumping it," he remembered. "I can't tell you when the station was torn out of there, but I remember it was there."

Mike also has vivid memories of the small houses -- shacks, he calls them --that stretched along First Avenue between the gas station and the wholesale grocery building.

"These old bachelors would sit out there," he said. "I remember Corky Brace -- that's a Daily Globe name (longtime sports editor) --would sit over there. I'm pretty sure I got caught smoking cigarettes over there with those old guys.

"I can remember the old steam engines going by there," he added. "One of the steam train engineers lived next door to us."

Army life

When he turned 17, Mike decided he'd had enough formal education.

"I quit school at 17 and went into the Army," he said. "I figured I knew it all by then. That was 1960, and I got out in '63."

In retrospect, Mike figures enlisting at that time was better than waiting to get drafted.

"It was a good move, because Vietnam got rolling a few years later," he said.

Following basic training at Fort Ord, Calif., Mike had further schooling to be a cook -- not a career path he would have chosen.

"It was demeaning to send me to cook school, I thought at the time," he said. "I remember that they showed us how to devein shrimp, but I never saw a shrimp again during my time in the Army. I suppose they wanted you to know that in case you worked in the officers' mess."

Most of Mike's military service -- 31 months -- was spent in western Germany, about 15 miles from the French border. He only worked in the mess hall there for three months before he got sent to the motor pool, a place where he felt much more comfortable.

"The outfit I was in was an evacuation hospital -- like a 'M*A*S*H' unit on TV -- but further back from the front lines," he described. "It was a 400-bed hospital, but all in tents."

When he returned home after his three-year military stint, Mike went down to belatedly fulfill his obligation of signing up for the draft, required at age 18. The woman in charge gave him a dirty look when she noted his age, saying "You're a bit late, aren't you," until he presented his military separation papers that proved his service to his country.

The family business

Upon his return to Worthington, Mike worked a couple of different jobs.

"I worked down at Worthington Tire, and then for the city for a summer," he said. "I quickly realized I was no lineman, because I didn't have any hands to work with. I was too busy hanging on to the poles with both hands."

One memorable incident from his brief city stint involved changing street lights using an old ladder truck, right outside his boss' office.

"We pulled up in front of the superintendent's office and ended up poking that ladder right through his office window," said Mike. "I can still hear the tinkling of the glass as it fell. ... It was embarrassing at the time, but now it's kind of funny."

At that time, Mike's dad was working for a local implement dealer, but his dream was to open his own business. He achieved that when Balk Automotive opened in 1964 on the First Avenue property.

"He had worked on farm tractors, but the implement dealer had also sold Oldsmobiles," Mike explained about his dad's mechanical background. "I never did like tractors. I didn't enjoy working on them like he did. And the tractors kept getting bigger, so we got out of that. We did a lot of transmission and engine overhauls."

Eleven years later, Leo Balk retired, and Mike bought the business. Eventually, Mike shifted the focus to mufflers.

"There was a year in there when we probably had a nice winter, and the transmission business just wasn't there," he said. "So I bought a pipe bender and phased into exhaust work. I'd still do a few brake jobs, stuff like that. It also got so everything was electronic, and the diagnostic equipment costs thousands of dollars. I just didn't want to get into that."

Leo continued to help out at the shop for a while after he retired, but for the most part Mike has worked solo over the years. However, there were always a few guys who would stop in and keep him company while he worked.

"I have four or five chairs down there, and sometimes they'd be full," he said. "Brad Witzel always stops in during the summer, and he always says he's got to 'Stop down and get Balkinized.'"

Although he faces a 70th birthday later this year, Mike had intended to keep operating the business until it reached the 50-year mark.

"But this guy came along, and he kept talking to me about buying it," Mike explained. "I figured there might not be anybody who wants to buy it when I'm ready."

Balk Automotive has been purchased by Jose Vasquez, who plans to operate it with his friend, Antonio, calling it J&A Automotive. Mike's last day there was March 15. The sign still reads Balk Automotive, but that will change when the weather warms up.

Retirement plans

Since he hadn't planned on retiring just yet, Mike has no real plans for his free time.

He figures his wife, Ardis -- they'll have been married 29 years in August -- will come up with a few jobs to keep him busy.

"My first day hanging around the house, it was pretty quiet," he admitted. "But we've got this acreage out there, so I'm sure there will be plenty to do."

Mike has no interest in heading south for the winter --the snowbird's life holds no appeal. The Balks have occasionally traveled to visit friends from his service days and for military reunions, and someday he'd like to visit the area of Germany where he was stationed.

For the most part, however, Mike plans to stay put in Worthington -- just as he's done for most of his life.

"I've got a fishing boat that hasn't been wet for eight or nine years," he said.

Adjusting to retirement is going to take some time, and Mike has eagerly offered to help the shop's new owners if they should find the need.

"It's very weird," he said about not heading down First Avenue each morning. "I'm not sure if the shock has set in yet. But life is full of changes -- some happy ones, some sad ones."

Daily Globe Features Editor Beth Rickers can be reached at 376-7327.

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