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'I knew I wanted to give back': Local Make-a-Wish beneficiary to host car show fundraiser in Fargo

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FARGO – When Eli Koppenhaver was diagnosed with cancer at age 13, Make-a-Wish North Dakota arranged for the restoration of the 1974 Trans Am that his great uncle left the family.

He’d only had a casual interest in car shows up to that point, but with such a sweet ride to show off, he began going to all the car shows he could with his dad, Jeff, including two cross-country trips.

The boy made a lot of friends along the way, joining what his mom, Caroline, called a “brotherhood of car people.”

On Saturday, May 19, the 17-year-old is holding his own car show at 10 a.m. at Blue Cross Blue Shield, 4510 13th Ave. S., in Fargo and inviting all his car brothers, including a man who impersonates Buford T. Justice of “Smokey and the Bandit” fame that he met on the road.

It’s for his Eagle Scout project, but Eli admitted the car had a lot to do with it.

“I knew I wanted to give back to Make-a-Wish, and I really wanted to put on a car show because I like car shows,” he said. “Then it was trying to figure out how do I put on a car show and still make it benefit Make-a-Wish?”

“When he got this car the whole car culture bloomed in our family,” Caroline said. “It’s just amazing to me how much good has come out of that, so many close relationships and supportive people. I’ve been amazed by it.”

Love of his life

The white Pontiac Firebird Trans Am had been the prized possession of Gerald Zinn of Hummelstown, Pa., who was Jeff’s uncle and Eli’s great uncle. “Gerald was never married, but his love other than the seas was a 1974 Pontiac Firebird TransAM which he recently gifted to a nephew,” the merchant mariner’s 2014 obituary read.

Gerald actually had three Trans Ams in his life, and the last one he owned he’d been driving for 35 years.

Eli’s dad grew up riding in the second Trans Am and was thrilled when he was told he could have it, according to Caroline. “When the text came in: ‘Do you want Gerry’s car? Eli’s dad was like, ‘Do I want Gerry’s car? I’ve wanted it for 30 years!’”

When the family got possession of the Trans Am, it was in bad shape and was stored in the garage until they could get around to working on it, Eli said. Those plans were put on hold when he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a kind of cancer, two weeks later in September 2014, he said.

Gerald died two weeks after that at 84.

Make-a-Wish, a nonprofit group that grants wishes to children with life-threatening conditions, asked Eli if he had a wish, he said he wanted the Trans Am to be restored.

The cancer was in remission by the time the work was done and the gleaming Trans Am was unveiled at West Fargo Cruise Night in August 2015.

After that, Eli and his dad began going to a lot of car shows. Twice they went on a Bandit Run, a kind of traveling car show covering hundreds of miles that commemorates the events of the movie “Smokey and the Bandit.” The 1977 road movie is about a group of beer smugglers led by a Trans Am being chased by an obsessed sheriff named Buford T. Justice in a 1977 Pontiac LeMans.

That’s how Eli came to befriend the Buford impersonator, David Betz of St. Joseph, Mo.

“It’s gone beyond the car,” his mom said. “A whole brotherhood and fellowship of car people that have become friends and supportive and he knows people all across the country.”

Highest rank

Besides being a car enthusiast, Eli is also a Boy Scout working towards the group’s highest rank, Eagle. To get there, he has to use his leadership skills in performing a public service. For many boys, this might mean building a park gazebo or cleaning an old cemetery.

Eli said the purpose of his car show is to collect toys for Make-a-Wish, which uses them as kind of a bonus prize during its wish-granting visits. He said the toys should be for kids from 2½ to 17 years old.

Eli said he approached many businesses for sponsorship, including Midwest Rod and Custom of Lake Park, Minn., which was involved in the Trans Am’s restoration.

It was a little nerve-wracking for him to go and ask business owners for donations, but he said being a Make-a-Wish kid actually made it easier. The group regularly asks kids to speak at its events and he said he’s done his fair share, including speaking at a corporate event in front of a 150 people.

On Saturday, Eli will be running the show, organizing the Scouts of Troop 111 as they register guests, collect donations and clean up.

His great uncle’s gift has given him so much more than just a sweet ride.

Caroline said her son has a whole network of friends and supporters and has enjoyed many new experiences. “How many 15-year-olds can say they’ve crossed the country on a Trans Am on the open road?”

If you go:
  • What: Eli Koppenhaver is holding a car show for his Eagle Scout Project.
  • Sheriff Buford T. Justice will be there in his 1977 LeMans squad car.
  • When: 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, May 19. Registration starts 9 a.m.
  • Where: Parking lot of Blue Cross Blue Shield, 4510 13th Ave. S., Fargo.
  • How much: Free admission for exhibitors and spectators with the donation of an unwrapped toy or other gift, such as games, headphones, gift cards or sketchbooks. Benefits Make-a-Wish North Dakota.
  • More info: