ORIGINALLY WRITTEN CYNTHIA MARTENS
When a teenager with a flat tire pulled away from the four-way stop next to his gas station, Lowell Jost called the girl’s mother to warn her about the tire hazard.
“She was surprised,” Jost said. “So she told me to go to the school parking lot to pick up the car and fix the tire.”
That’s just all in a day’s work for the owner of Jost Service Station in Hillsboro-the last full-service-only gas station in Marion County.
“And I’m guessing there’s probably only a handful left in Kansas,” Jost said.
The simple words “Full Service Only” are written in black-block letters on a sign hanging above two gas tanks in front of the station.
“I’ve kept it full service to be able to treat a customer on a one-on-one basis-taking care of whatever needs arise with their vehicle,” Jost said.
When a customer pulls in, Jost will still fill up the gas tank, wash the windshield, check the tires and look under the hood.
“It’s just been a family tradition to extend full service,” he said.
In their infancy, gas stations popping up in communities across the nation were exclusively full-service.
Some baby boomers and senior citizens will remember the Texaco commercials boasting smiling uniformed attendants rushing out to swarm over a car and check it over thoroughly.
Many of today’s gas stations in Kansas have converted to either a combination self-service and full-service, or self-service only.
But Jost refuses to change a business philosophy that has survived since 1946-when his father, John Jost, bought the station at the southeast corner of what is now Ash and D streets.
“I worked for dad since I was just old enough to run a gas pump,” Jost said.
The original building had vintage columns supporting a portico that extended out from the station and covered the gas pumps, attendants and vehicles-protecting them from inclement weather.
But that antiquated structure was torn down in 1955 when John Jost decided the station needed a face lift.
The elder Jost retired in about 1974, and his two sons, Lowell and Jerry, became co-owners of the family business.
Jerry retired in 1998 at the time when the brothers were faced with the decision to comply with the constraints of the Environmental Protection Agency or eventually close.
“I did some investigating as to what it was going to take,” Jost said.
“My wife, Eleanor, and I decided that it was probably going to be economically feasible to go ahead and go with the upgrades to stay in business and meet the EPA standards. So here we are.”
The station’s three gas-pump hoses dispense one grade of gasoline-regular unleaded.
“At this point, I don’t offer the mid-grade,” Jost said.
“I felt-with the fluctuating fuel prices over the last six months or so-there would be too much of a difference as far as trying to keep more than just one grade of unleaded.”
His unleaded costs about 4 cents more per gallon than area self-service pumps.
For 10 gallons of gas, that only adds up to 40 cents more to make sure the car is in safe-operating condition and get a dose of Jost’s affable personality.
Just ask Chris Scott of rural Hillsboro, who said he frequently stops at the station.
“It’s partially because I want to support small local businesses,” Scott said.
“But full service is important, and Lowell is very entertaining. He’s a nice guy.”
While Jost sets the hose in the vehicle’s gas tank, he takes time to check over the vehicle.
At self-serve stations, many customers don’t take the time to look at tires and check fluids.
“In this fast-moving world, everything has to be done immediately, if not sooner,” Jost said.
“But I will take the opportunity to check someone’s oil, which gives me a chance to look at the belts and hoses.”
The shelves inside the station are filled with two brands of oil-Service Pro and Pennzoil-but Jost will offer to get a different brand if the customer requests it.
Asked about the mechanical services he offers, Jost said: “Oh, I’m a shade-tree mechanic. I will replace some alternators and mufflers. I’ll do oil changes, replace some fan belts, repair tires and sell new tires.”
And then there are those times when a new customer from out of town will pull up, jump out of their vehicle and start pumping their own gas.
What does he do then?
“I walk out and kindly mention to them that I’d like to help them if at all possible,” Jost said.
“And they’ll say, ‘Why, I haven’t had that done in 20 years.'”
A one-man operation, Jost has no employees, except for Eleanor, who helps with the bookkeeping.
“She does the paper work as far as sending in the taxes and keeps me on my toes,” Jost said.
Part of that book work is keeping track of customers who have a running charge account at the station and receive a statement at the end of the month.
Jost also accepts major credit cards for gas and services.
Station hours are 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday, but Sunday is his day off to spend with family or get involved in community events.
And while broaching the subject of Sundays, Jost said he was recently featured on television station KAKE Channel 10 on two Sundays-April 13 and April 20.
“It’s a humbling experience,” Jost said. “A small-town boy not thinking about getting a once-in-a-lifetime experience to be on television.”
On April 7, Jost received a call from Larry Hatteberg, a Wichita television personality, who produces a segment called Larry Hatteberg’s Kansas People.
Hatteberg told Jost that Frank Wiens of Hillsboro recommended Jost as a possible candidate for a human-interest story.
An interview was scheduled for the following day at 9 a.m.
“That about blew me away,” Jost said.
Upon his arrival, Hatteberg got out of his Suburban, came into the station and briefly visited with Jost.
Jost questioned where the camera crew was, and Hatteberg explained that-just like Jost-he was a one-man operation. He conducted the interview and ran the camera.
“Larry said, ‘If I mess up on a shot, it’s my fault. And if I ask the wrong questions, it’s my fault,'” Jost said.
The interview lasted 30 to 45 minutes for a final tape that ran about seven minutes.
Jost was able to watch the segment aired on the evening news April 13, and the program was repeated the following Sunday. And of course, he made sure to get it on video tape.
The community reaction to his Hatteberg-show debut was immediate.
“There were people who drove by (the station) Monday morning and they’d yell, ‘Hi, movie star. Nice job,'” Jost said.
“Or I’d go to the bank, and someone would comment how well it was done.”
Jost said he’s enjoyed dealing with the public in the years since he first helped his dad at the family gas station.
“Some people may come in and have a few minutes to chat or shoot the breeze-it’s been interesting over the years,” Jost said.
“Someone coming in, I might have read in the paper that they’ve lost a loved one. Or, somebody might be in the hospital. You wouldn’t spend time with them like this if it was a self-service station.”
And you probably wouldn’t have the opportunity to be on television-even for a brief moment-either.