Paul Helgeson always treated his customers like family.

And now they, along with many others, are rallying to support him-like family-as he faces serious illness.

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A fundraising benefit is planned for 3 to 6:30 p.m. Sunday at St. Mary's Catholic Church, across the street from Odin's Belmont service station where he worked for almost three decades, including 24 years as owner.

"I used to have a couple of employees, but in the last few years I ran it by myself," he said.

"It was a neighborhood place. Customers became like family; I was on a first-name basis with most of them. I know their kids and grandkids all by first name."

The effects of lung cancer and a rare autoimmune disease forced Helgeson to shutter the garage about a year ago. The business is up for sale.

He said the autoimmune disease prevents him from working.

"It affects my hands and feet," said Helgeson, 52. "I can't use my hands anymore."

'I loved it'

Even as a child, fixing cars seemed to come naturally to Helgeson.

"I was always good at it; I loved it," said the Grand Forks native. "I started at 8 years old. I learned just by doing it."

The 1985 Grand Forks Red River High School graduate began working at Odin's Belmont Service after earning a degree in a two-year, automotive technician program at North Dakota State College of Science in Wahpeton.

After five years, he bought the station from Odin Kvamme but was never inclined to change the name of the place, a fixture on Belmont Road since the early 1900s.

"I had worked there for five years; everybody knew me, anyway," he said.

Besides that, "'Odin's' had been the name for 30 years; I'm not that vain that I needed my name up there."

His work varied.

"I did a little bit of everything-engines, transmissions, but not overhauls," he said. "I did tune-ups, water pumps, replaced belts when they broke."

For problems requiring specialized tools or expertise, he recommended owners take their vehicles back to the dealer.

He worked on all types of vehicles, "they all break down," he said, but he favored Dodge Chrysler cars.

Fair and honest

Over the years, customers remained loyal, he said, "because people are looking for somebody who is honest, somebody they trust, and good work."

His was among a couple of stations where employees pump gas.

"He not only pumped your gas, he'd clean your windshield and check the oil if you wanted him to," said Mae Marie Blackmore of Grand Forks, ago 93 and a long-time customer. "And he always applied it with a smile."

When she was younger, Blackmore pumped her own gas, she said, "but the winters got cold. It's worth two cents more a gallon when it's 40 below."

Her wintertime visits to Odin's turned into a year-round habit.

"I figured if I used him at 40 below, I should use him at 100 degrees above, too. That's only fair."

Blackmore is probably one of the few customers who also knew Helgeson as a 3- or 4-year-old, she said. He was a student at the former UND Nursery, now the UND Children's Center, where she was director for 31 years.

"He's just a genuinely good man," she said. "A good businessman."

In an era when personal service at a gas station is nearly non-existent, Helgeson stands out.

"I once was grilling at home and got a call from a lady in distress," he said. "I just turned off the grill and said, 'I'll be back in a while, honey.' "

That lady was probably Viriginia Esslinger of Grand Forks, she said. "I was a customer for years and years."

Esslinger recalled several instances when Helgeson went out of his way to help her, including the time she took her grandsons and daughter to a restaurant one Sunday when, upon leaving, her car wouldn't start.

"Where do you find help on a Sunday afternoon?" she said.

She called Helgeson at home, she said. "Paul was out grilling in the backyard. He came over, gave us a jump, got it going, and we drove it to the station for him to fix. He gave us a ride home. You just don't find that in this day and age."

Since then, whenever her daughter, Mary Jo, sees Helgeson she says, "There's our hero," Esslinger said.

"I miss him. Just the other day something with my car came up and I thought, 'I have to take it to Paul,' " she said. Then she remembered that's no longer an option.

"It's really sad driving by that station and seeing it closed," she said. "We wish the best for him."

Reluctant to accept support

When Helgeson was first approached about a benefit on his behalf, he declined, he said.

"They tried to do this when I was in the hospital in February. I didn't want anything; I said no. I thought there were others who could use it more than me."

Later, he relented.

"They wouldn't take 'no' for an answer," he said. "They were going to do it anyway."

At the benefit, Helgeson is mostly looking forward to reconnecting with former customers.

"It will be nice to see everybody, to see their faces," he said. "I haven't seen them in a long time."

About Odin's Belmont, he said simply, "I miss it."

If you go

What: Benefit for Paul Helgeson, owner of Odin's Belmont Service station. Spaghetti dinner, bake sale and silent auction

When: 3 to 6:30 p.m. Sunday

Where: St. Mary's Catholic Church, 216 Belmont Road (lower level, Third Avenue South door)

Organizers: St. Mary's, United Lutheran and St. Paul's Episcopal churches

Cost: Free will donation (or mail checks payable to North Dakota Association for the Disabled, with "Paul Helgeson" on the check's memo line, to NDAD, 2660 S. Columbia Road, Grand Forks, ND 58201)