From the Executive Director - April - 2023

Chapter 4: The Midwest Chapter

ATRA’s Midwest Chapter has a long and rich history of being one of the most active ATRA chapters and providing members technical training, support, and scholarship opportunities. Without the help of two members of our current leadership team, Denny Stearns and Ron Lingenfelter, and with additional input from Brad Benrud, this article might not have gotten off the ground. And without the three founders of the Midwest Chapter, this article might never have been written.

The Midwest Chapter was founded in 1976 by three passionate transmission specialists: Al Tank, Edgar “Red” Girdley, and Ed Howe. The contributions of these men were invaluable in establishing the Midwest Chapter and laying the foundation for its success.

Al Tank, a transmission specialist from Davenport, Iowa, was the first president of the Midwest Chapter. He discovered ATRA and contacted them about forming a chapter, which led to his connection with Red Girdley. Red, based in Fort Dodge, Iowa, had established a remanufacturing facility with a wholesale approach to the business. Together, Al and Red brainstormed ideas and decided to develop a presence in the Midwest for transmission specialists to bond, associate, and exchange ideas and to design a training program.

In 1977, Al and Red met Ed Howe of Des Moines, Iowa, who was running the family business Sta-Rite Transmissions with his father, Leo. These three men met at a local function by chance and discovered the calling they shared. They began organizing meetings at transmission shops, trade schools, and hotels. This led to recruitment efforts of new ATRA members extending into Nebraska, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. Red was eventually elected to the ATRA International Board as the Area Director.

During the next few years, the Midwest Chapter established a transmission technical training school at Red Girdley’s large Ft. Dodge, Iowa facility. Red worked to develop a 5-day rebuilder training program. Once the school became public, the calls for enrollment skyrocketed. After a few more years, the school became known as “The Red Girdley ATRA Training School.” Red always referred to it as “MIT” (Midwest Institute of Transmissions).

Red’s MIT became world-renowned, and Red was invited overseas several times by a technical school in Saudi Arabia to teach students hands-on transmission rebuilding. In some cases, students (now rebuilders) would encounter difficult transmission problems. Red and his wife, Marj, would pack up the necessary parts and tools and travel to the shop to personally assist them in completing the repairs together, free of charge!

Red Girdley was also known for his love of hot food and golf. His crew and he would often go into a local Mexican restaurant that Red liked and invite everyone to try a tablespoon of their hot sauce. As you can imagine, everyone was dying a slow, painful hot sauce-induced death. Not Red, though; he smiled and said, “tastes good, right.” Red’s breakfast of choice was 1 egg, 1 strip of bacon, and some Tabasco. People would sign up for the Red Girdley golf tournament at our transmission conventions every year. Of course, Red wasn’t known for hitting the ball far, but he hit it straight as a string.

I have a hand-painted picture of Red and Marj at the ATRA International Business Office. It reads, “Red and Marj Girdley, Royal Founding Family.” Denny Stearns told me there were only two of these paintings and that producing them took over a year. Red and Marj were married for nearly 64 years, and that kind of passion is hard to find.

The contributions these three men made were beyond measure. The unselfish and dedicated manner in which they conducted themselves and the steadfast focus they shared empowered, equipped, and demonstrated a way of life that enriched others and became a platform for many who followed them.

The Midwest Chapter still sponsors thousands of dollars in scholarships to local students to attend the college of their choice. They also sponsor local seminar fees, training books, and other local growth opportunities. The Midwest Chapter remains one of the most engaged ATRA chapters.

Many others have preceded the current leaders of the Midwest Chapter. Among them were Kim Lingenfelter, Don Chase, Jerry Jurkovski, and Al Weeder. These individuals, along with the three founders, helped shape the Midwest Chapter into what it is today.

Thanks again to Denny Stearns, Ron Lingenfelter, and Brad Benrud for their help in sorting out the Midwest Chapter’s history.