A UAA marriage steeped in a love of cars

by Kathleen McCoy  |   

Shawn and Heather Heusser

Shawn and Heather Heusser-a match made in Automotive & Diesel Technology-pose with their 57 Chevy. On the day of this photo, Heather took the Chevy for its maiden drive with a new 454, built by Shawn. Photo by Ted Kincaid/University of Alaska Anchorage.

Sometimes you meet two people who just seem to belong together.

That would be true for Shawn and Heather Heusser, members of the UAA community who came together over a mutual love of cars, some of which actually run.

"At one point, we had 10 and a half" cars, Heather remembered. The first year of their marriage, she recalled bumping her shins against a $30,000 engine stored in their bedroom, too valuable to be kept anyplace else.

They met online, sort of. Heather was looking for a particular kind of truck. She was chatting on a Chevy message board when someone suggested she needed to meet Shawn at UAA because he could help her find the truck.

The two connected and began talking cars. Then Heather took a UAA welding class from Shawn. She needed to learn how to weld the doors shut on a Ford Tempo she planned to drive in a demolition derby. Together they got the Tempo ready for the run; she came in fourth.

Their first real date? "We went and pulled a motor out of a truck at his mother's house," Heather said.

Love of cars goes deep

We first met Shawn reporting a story about dropping the engine out of a 1996 Ford sedan so the shell could be retooled into a driving simulator for UAA research. Much of the work took place in the teaching facility for UAA's Automotive Diesel Program.

Currently he's the building manager and tool room supervisor for the auto program, but he's also a graduate of the diesel technology track and a lifelong skilled engine machinist. He's taught welding, diesel engines, drive trains and a number of other classes at UAA.

It wasn't until after that Ford engine was history that I spotted a dark blue Chevy pickup parked in a far corner with the license plate "57CHEV." That sure seemed like a story.

Shawn Heusser at age 14with his new '57 Chevy, before the blue paint job.

Shawn Heusser at age 14 with his "new" '57 Chevy, before the blue paint job. The year was 1994. (Photo courtesy of Shawn Heusser.)

The truck turned out to be Shawn's. He'd bought it for $1,400 on his 14th birthday on Sept. 10, 1994. By about Sept. 20 that year, he'd secured the vanity plate "57CHEV." He's 33 now, and has spent the last two decades working on that truck. Heather says he's pulled an engine out of it every year of their six-year marriage; he counted and it turned out to be only five. But the sixth engine is already purchased for it.

Heather's car love is different. It dates to her dad, who worked as an airplane mechanic and loved retooling cars in his off time. He'd purchased a 1969 Oldsmobile 4-4-2 (4 speed, 4 barrel, 2 exhaust engine). When the family moved to Georgia, then to Seattle and finally Alaska, it came along.

But Heather says it never ran. She can remember helping her dad jack it up to move it around the garage, but she never sat in it and never even went for a ride.

When her parents divorced in 2001, her father sold the car. Sadly, she assumed it was lost forever. But here's where destiny seems to take over.

Fast forward to Shawn and Heather meeting and knowing each other, but not yet married. Heather was back in Pittsburg attending her grandfather's funeral. That very day in 2008, she got a call from Shawn. He'd found the Olds 442 on Craigslist. Not only that, he'd bought it back for her for $3,000.

Restoring it together is an upcoming project. To be honest, she's not really sure what her dad saw in the car. "They are rare now, and not all that popular," she says, "It's hard to find parts. But the reason I like it is because it was my dad's."


The '57 Chevy figured prominently on their wedding day six years ago. Now they are restoring another one, as well as a 1969 Olds 4-4-2 that once belonged to Heather's father. (Photo courtesy of Shawn and Heather Heusser.)

But before they get to really working on the Olds, they have another project to finish. As Shawn put it, "Now that I am married, we've decided to start over with a clean slate."

Translated, that means another 57 Chevy, this one with an all-original frame that they've modified. Shawn explained: "We have installed a Mustang II independent front suspension system, a four-link rear suspension system and a Currie enterprise Ford 9-inch rear axle." A friend with a fabrication shop is taking out the old rear window and installing a much larger one, which means cutting into the body.

"We have more money just in this frame than I have in the entire blue truck," Shawn said. "This (new) truck is built for cruising. We already have a Chevy 6.0 engine for it and a 4L80E tranny, so this thing will be like driving a new truck, both in feeling, power, fuel economy and reliability."

UAA connections

We told you about Shawn's history at UAA. But in addition to teaching here, he told us he arranged for the engine art on display outside the Automotive Diesel Building along West Campus Drive. He acquired the engine, built the stand and painted the entire thing, but got every piece of it donated to the university. "I'm kind of proud of it," he said by email.

He also has a good story about "Fat Alice." That's a front-end loader that moved snow at UAA for years. According to Shawn, operators at Merrill Field donated it to UAA when it broke down and they failed to fix it. It arrived at UAA on pallets and in pieces. As a student worker, Shawn put it back together and returned it to a useful life.

"It was a Fiat," he said. But the 'i' dropped off, so it was known as "Fat Alice" for years.

Heather's connections to UAA come mostly as a student. She works today as a data manager for the Department of Natural Resources in the oil and gas division. She started her academic career at Mat-Su College, where she earned a general associate's degree. Later she earned a bachelor's in business with a major in management and a minor in economics. Then she went on to earn a master's in public administration at UAA. Today, she's working online for her M.B.A. from UAF.

Not to mention all the UAA automotive classes she took for fun. She values the tuition waivers extended to UAA employees and their families, she said. "As long as he is here, it just seems silly not to take classes."

So comes the end of our happy automotive romance between Heather and Shawn. (She, by the way, is known as fenderbender13 on Myspace, and akchevygirl via email.)

As you might imagine, birthdays and holidays mean one thing, gift-wise: car parts. After a number of parts-buying misadventures, Heather has learned to hand Shawn a catalog and a yellow marker, and only buy him what he specifically asks for.

But one thing she is confident about: He loves his 57 Chevy.

"I'll bury him in that blue truck," she says laughing.

The story was written by Kathleen McCoy for UAA Advancement.


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