When Don Hughes was found dead on the train tracks in Paso Robles, the news sent a wave of mourning through those in the community who knew him.
The loss of a good friend and longtime resident served as a reminder of the town’s simpler past before it became a sought-after wine destination, when “Radiator Don” was the best mechanic around.
But it was also a sobering story about a well-liked but stubborn character who was set in his ways and unwilling or unable to accept the advice that might have prevented what happened on May 17.
For many years, Hughes, 70, was the owner of a Spring Street auto repair shop, Claassen’s Radiator Service — a Paso Robles institution with an iconic red sign that hearkens back to a time when cars weren’t filled with computers and plastic parts.
Aside from his skills as a radiator specialist, Hughes was known for being regular part of the downtown bar scene, where others recalled him as a good dancer and a true gentleman.
“He’s really a Paso treasure,” said Shari Wenzel, Hughes’ longtime friend.
Over the course of the last 20 years, however, financial issues and alcohol began to take an irreversible toll, and Hughes went from being a respected Paso Robles mechanic with his own shop to living on the streets.
A year after losing his shop, he had little left to his name but the trailer he called home, parked next to the railroad tracks behind the Derby Wine Estates Tasting Room that now occupies the old Farmer’s Alliance building, itself a sign of the changing times.
Only steps away, that’s where a woman walking her dog found him one morning last month.
‘It seemed like everybody was his friend’
In his prime, Hughes was known throughout the area for his auto repair skills. He officially took over the deed for the Claassen’s Radiator Service property in 1998, according to public property records.
“He was probably the best on the Central Coast when he had his job,” said Kevin Tolentino, manager of the Lube-N-Go auto shop next door. “There wasn’t any radiator or heater core he couldn’t fix.”
Mary Booker, a Paso Robles native, said most everybody used to take their cars to Hughes’ shop.
“That shop was his world,” she said. “It seemed like everybody was his friend.”
Wenzel said she grew up knowing Hughes, who would buy her sandwiches or candy as a kid. When she got older, she’d take her cars to him for repairs. She remembered a time when he fixed her car and she wasn’t able to pay him back until years later.
“He was good at what he did,” she said.
Hughes was also a fixture at most all of the downtown bars — bartenders at Pine Street Saloon, Rodeo and F. McLintocks Saloon all knew his name.
Kristen Casey, a McLintocks manager, called Hughes “an old-fashioned guy.” She said he used to stop by O’Grady’s, a now-closed Spring Street bar, for a Coors after work.
“He was always funny,” she said. “He’d always have nice things to say.”
Hughes’ prized possessions were his vintage vehicles, especially his 1940 and 1947 Indian Chief motorcycles. Old photos show Hughes cruising around on his bike, the wind ruffling his beard.
“He used to stand up on his motorcycle and ride it like a crazy person,” Wenzel said.
At some point in the 2010s, Hughes began living in a 1950s travel trailer just outside his shop.
Friends said he had alcohol abuse issues that got worse over time, and his property became a kind of dumping ground for his and others’ miscellaneous stuff.
Auto repair work also involves toxic materials, and Hughes didn’t dispose of them properly.
San Luis Obispo County Environmental Services documents show Hughes had drums of hazardous and solder waste at his shop, and his soil was contaminated with lead, copper, zinc, diesel and oil.
By 2017, Hughes was about $25,000 behind on his property taxes.
Jim Erb, then the county auditor-controller, began to reach out to him to try to help get his finances together.
Erb, now the Kings County director of finance, told The Tribune he hoped Hughes could sell the property, pay his taxes and put some money in an escrow account to finance the environmental cleanup.
Then, Hughes would likely still have enough left over to buy a modest home for himself, Erb said.
“I did everything I could to help him salvage things,” he said.
The property looked like a junkyard, but Hughes’ collection of vintage vehicles had significant value.
According to a liquidation report, Hughes had nearly $82,000 worth of machinery and old cars and trucks at his shop, including three 1946 Dodge pickups, a 1945 Jeep and a 1978 Oldsmobile.
In addition, his two Indian motorcycles were each worth $25,000, according to the report.
“I said, ‘Pick one, Don. Fix it up and save your stuff,’” Erb said.
The county District Attorney’s Office was also involved with Hughes’ property, due to the environmental hazard it posed.
Eric Dobroth, assistant district attorney, told The Tribune it was obvious that prosecuting Hughes was not a good option for anyone.
“It just seemed like a situation where we could solve everybody’s problem by getting Don some help,” he said.
Dobroth and Erb visited Hughes’ property, but ultimately couldn’t motivate him to take their advice.
“At the end of the day, I don’t think Don had the capacity to deal with the problems,” Dobroth said.
Wenzel, Hughes’ friend, said she also tried to help Hughes with his property, which was “overwhelming.” But he didn’t trust authority figures and was caught up in his alcoholism, she said.
“He was real stubborn,” Wenzel said. “He didn’t ask for help.”
Almost one year to the day before his death, on May 11, 2018, Hughes’ shop was sold in a county tax auction for $226,900. He was formally evicted from the property just a few months later.
Atascadero Enterprises LLC, which owns the Lube-N-Go next door, purchased the property at the auction. Today, it’s surrounded by a chain link fence, and most of Hughes’ vintage vehicles are gone, save one 1940s Dodge pickup.
The back of the property, visible from an alley, is filled with wood and metal scraps — an old U.S. Army Jeep is parked off to one side, partially covered by a tarp.
Tolentino, the Lube-N-Go manager, said the owner plans to keep the street-facing side of the property mostly intact. The owner also wants to restore the truck and leave it out front in honor of Hughes.
“That was one of Don’s pride and joys,” Tolentino said.
‘He will be missed’
A woman walking her dog discovered him lying alongside his bicycle on the railroad tracks near 6th and Pine streets, although he hadn’t been struck by a train, according to a Paso Robles Police Department news release.
There was a small amount of blood above his left eye and on his cheek that made it appear as though he had fallen off his bicycle, and police later said he died of natural causes.
Following an autopsy, the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff-Coroner’s Office determined Hughes suffered a heart attack — likely a few days before he was found — and then eventually died from the cardiac event, said Sgt. Tony Perry.
The loss of his shop left Hughes homeless during the last year of his life.
Multiple people told The Tribune he was living in his trailer along the railroad tracks behind Derby Wine Estates — not far from where his body was found.
Gail McNichols, executive director of homeless nonprofit Paso Cares, said Hughes was a regular at the nightly dinners the group serves, starting about a year ago.
She described him as a “great conversationalist” and a “gentleman” who was always very appreciative of those who provided the meals.
“We were all extremely fond of him,” McNichols said. “He will be missed.”
Hughes’ friends will hold a Celebration of Life potluck in his honor at Downtown City Park on Saturday at 10 a.m. All are welcome to bring a dish of food and a donation for Paso Cares.