Jessica Johns had to sell her husband’s car after he was killed while serving in Iraq.
Now, 14 and a half years later, the car is being returned to their son Justin for his 15th birthday — and it will be completely refurbished, thanks to the generosity of multiple Utah businesses.
“We feel loved,” Johns, from Texas, said. “It’s been 14 and a half years since (my late husband) died and people still want to do stuff for him and his son.”
Johns and her then-husband, Lt. Jonathan David Rozier of the U.S. Army, bought the 1999 Toyota Celica convertible in 2001. But this August, when Justin expressed interest in driving his dad’s car should they be able to find it, Johns decided to start looking.
“I thought it was going to take us at least a year (to find it) if it was even out there,” Johns said.
It took less than a week. After putting out a Facebook post, Johns received a Facebook message just days later from a Pleasant Grove resident who had found the car.
“When I got that message, I started crying because I couldn’t believe we found it and it was so quick,” Johns said.
Johns had an agreement with the owner of the car to buy it – but then Kyle Fox came in. Fox is the owner of Foxbuilt Furniture and founder of Follow the Flag, a non-profit organization dedicated to sharing love for the American flag, according to its website. He shared Johns’ Facebook post with the Follow the Flag Facebook group and created a GoFundMe page to help raise money to buy the car.
“(The car) has ties to our military and a fallen soldier, and that’s one of the reasons we do what we do at Follow the Flag,” Fox said. “(We want) to show respect (and) give tribute and relief to veterans, and any patriot for that matter.”
But Fox didn’t stop there. After raising the money to buy the car, he began soliciting local businesses for help refurbishing the car. Eight businesses directly donated time and materials.
BYU Upholstery Manager Wayne Martin decided the shop needed to find a way to contribute.
“We don’t do stuff for the public, just stuff for BYU, so this is something we took upon ourselves,” Martin said.
After they were contacted about the project several weeks ago, BYU upholstery shop employee Will Graham took on the bulk of the project, staying after hours and even using vacation time to avoid any conflict of interest.
He put an estimated 32 hours of unpaid time into re-upholstering the car’s seats. In honor of Jonathan Rozier, the seats now include a splash of red, white and blue, and embroidery company Westpro put American flags on the backs of the head rests.
Graham, who has worked in the shop for 15 years, is a father of eight and said he knows how important fathers are — that’s why he wanted to give back to someone who hasn’t had his father.
“It just seemed like something I could do with the talents and skills that I have to bless someone’s life,” Graham said.
A revealing party was held Oct. 18 at 5 p.m. in Pleasant Grove. Fox then drove the car to San Antonio, Texas, in time for Justin’s birthday celebration.
Johns said Justin, who turns 15 on Oct. 24, has no idea his dad’s car has been found.
“When this shiny, almost brand-new looking 20-year-old car shows up that belonged to his dad, I think he’s going to be out of his mind,” she said. “I can’t even imagine being a 15-year-old kid whose dad died being able to say, ‘Someone gave me his car that looks as good as the day that he left it.’”
Johns also said Justin has heard plenty of stories about his dad, but the car will connect him to his father in unique ways. For example, his dad learned to drive a stick shift in this car, and now Justin will do the same.
“I think it will help Justin feel connected to him in more ways than, ‘This is my dad’s car,’” Johns said. “(It’s) ‘I’m sitting here doing the exact same thing that my dad did 20 years ago, learning how to drive this same car.’ I think it will give him a link to the past, almost.”
Fox is just happy he could help bring the community together.
“The design was to be able to help people, and it has dramatically been able to heal people and help people and recharge people,” he said.