Originally published Nov. 8, 2010

The sign hanging outside on Baltimore Pike still said Weathers Dodge, but inside, a new business was forming, by necessity, if not design: Weathers Motors.

It was June 10, 2009, the morning after bankrupt Michigan automaker Chrysler eliminated 789 dealers across the nation to cut its cost structure and recharge under new Italian management.

Larry Weathers Jr. and his son Larry III awoke somewhat relieved, even though midnight had marked the loss of their 78-year-old family Dodge franchise. They had sold every new vehicle by the deadline except seven new Dakota pickup trucks, worth $150,000.

Junior's son was trying to coax surviving dealers to buy them, although few were biting. The Weathers men were also still owed more than $400,000 from the bankrupt corporation that had put them out of business.

They were, after decades, trying to reinvent themselves, stay in a business they understood, fight to remain positive while using whatever weapons they had to lash back at Chrysler, at the government, at whomever they perceived as responsible for what had happened.

At lunchtime Larry Weathers III took down the showroom's Dodge brochure display and began going through stacks of sales slips from the preceding 26-day frenzy that had all but emptied the Weathers lot.

His father rushed in with an urgent matter. "Jim Press is having an all-dealer conference call right now," he said of the Chrysler president.

Only surviving dealers had been invited to the call. Larry Weathers III quickly dialed a friend and obtained the access code.

"Excuse me," said office manager Kristine Kirk, who poked her head in, "I need the new Web address."

"It's www.weathersmotors.com, " Larry Weathers III said, as he hit the speakerphone button.

Junior closed the door and leaned against a wall.

Steve Landry, executive vice president and point man for dealers, was speaking.

"It was, and still will probably continue to be, a once-in-a-lifetime situation," Landry said, reassuring surviving dealers of their security.

Then Press came on the line.

With the enthusiasm of a winning coach, he extolled the new Chrysler. "It's a historic moment," he said.

European automaker Fiat was now in control. That meant Chrysler would be able to add smaller vehicles, a Fiat specialty, to its U.S. lineup, he said, heralding better days to come.

"You should all feel a sense of accomplishment and some pride," he told the winners. Though the dealer losses made the occasion "bittersweet," Press said, it "had to happen so we could survive."

Father and son exchanged a dark look.

Forget about the past, Press continued. "Shake our heads like Etch-A-Sketch."

As the call continued, Press announced that Mid-Atlantic dealer liaison Peter Fong, a Villanova University graduate and Navy man whom Junior had liked - until Weathers was put out of business - was being promoted to a top executive post.

Junior, still wearing his Weathers Dodge uniform, put his fingers on a temple and squeezed hard.

The struggle to survive

Two weeks into the life of Weathers Motors came the task Junior had been dreading: layoffs.

He and his son agreed they would begin with Carol DeMarco. With her white hair, rosy cheeks, and friendly smile, DeMarco, 70, had become a fixture as administrative assistant behind the front desk.

At Weathers, she had found kinship and, in title clerk Melissa Mattero, someone like a daughter.

Given the bad economy, DeMarco had been suspecting trouble for a while. If anyone had to be sacrificed, she told the office manager, it should be her, not Mattero. "Melissa has a daughter in college, and she's a single mom."

On Thursday, June 25, 2009, along with five others, DeMarco was let go.

"There wasn't enough work," Junior said.

Also let go was mechanic Rich Pinnock, suffering a third layoff from a Chrysler dealership.

He left behind the tools he'd collected over decades working on Dodge vehicles. He was never seen again.

The next day, DeMarco came in to say goodbye. The dealership was her second home, a refuge when her husband died the year before. She chatted with Mattero, 37, who had been spared.

"I've been here 10 years, and I've loved every moment of it," DeMarco said. She turned to Mattero. "I love my coworkers."

"Oh, my God," Mattero said, in tears. "You're not supposed to make me cry."

They hugged.

If Weathers Motors was to avoid more layoffs, it needed new business - and fast.

"I came in to buy a $2 bulb, and they gave me a 23-point inspection for 28 bucks!" said Marc Dulberg, a Dodge Nitro owner.

The Weathers men were making all kinds of deals, because Chrysler had been steering their old customers to surviving dealerships.

In fact, Larry Weathers III's estranged wife, who with their four children still depended on the dealership, received a mailer from David Dodge, in nearby Glen Mills:

"Weathers Dodge Inc. is no longer an authorized Chrysler Group LLC dealership. We're looking forward to meeting you!"

Dulberg had shown up because he was loyal. His mother once bought a car from Tom Tague. And when she needed it serviced, he marveled, the salesman had offered his own car as a loaner.

Still, Dulberg was philosophical. "In a free-market system, there is going to be winners and losers," he said. "And no one wants to be a loser."

As the trauma of losing the franchise receded, a new torture took its place: self-recrimination.

"I wake up at night," Junior said, "and just think - why it happened and what did I do wrong to make it happen."

The day after the layoffs, Larry Weathers III put on a brave front. "I'm not a person to cast blame. It happened. It's life. You know, you've just got to deal with stuff that's fired at you and figure out a way to maneuver."

But his strength didn't last. A week later, he seemed beaten down.

"They were all quality employees," he said, turning teary. "They all showed up on time, they all did their job."

That morning, Junior said he felt "lousy." His son tried to downplay that anxiety.

"I think he's doing good," he said. "I think, uh," he paused, "time heals everything."

And yet.

"It's still tough when any of us think about the fact that you are attached at the hip with a company for all these years, knowing inside not only how we served our customers but how we served Chrysler Corp. with the utmost integrity, with the utmost support.

"Whenever they cried for help, whenever they cried out for money, whenever they cried out for a need from the dealer body, we never turned them down. Never turned them down once."

Remembering is painful. You were a profitable dealership; you won customer service awards; you were there for the company.

"How's my dad doing? Well, I'm sure better than he was in the beginning, as we all probably are."

He slowed down.

"Sometimes, I think dads are supposed to have sons to help them out." His chin quivered.

"That's why I'm here."

One last try

They say it was an accident - a rusty bracket, is all.

The last day of August 2009 - two months after Chrysler axed the dealership - a man came with the new sign that said Weathers Motors.

He began to unfasten the old Dodge panels, untouched for years, above the showroom window. But a bracket crumbled like dust, and a giant pane shattered on the blacktop below.

No tears were shed over it.

Two days later, on Sept. 2, there was another surprise. Junior could barely conceal his glee as he stood in the service department, still wearing his Weathers Dodge uniform, holding a Craftsman wrench.

"We had a joyous morning!" he proclaimed, his eyes sparkling for the first time in months. "Chrysler Financial brought us all of our money!"

The automaker's financing arm had provided Weathers with the giant loans that enabled the dealership to buy Dodges from the factory and put them on its lot until customers bought them.

How much did Weathers get? $494,000.

When Weathers Dodge shut down, Junior owed Chrysler Financial for the vehicles he had sold in the final weeks. But knowing that the bankrupt corporation also owed him money he might never see (as an unsecured creditor, he was vulnerable), Junior held back his payment as leverage.

Chrysler Financial could have gone after Weathers' assets.

It was a big game of chicken, and they won. The Weathers men would never know how, but they were grateful, even if there was still a bigger task at hand: surviving in the months ahead.

Tom Tague, hustling to support his family, was working harder than ever. As a commissioned salesman, he was paid only if he sold cars. And selling wasn't coming easily.

"We don't have a franchise backing us up," he said. "We're on our own island now. . . . I have lost a few sales because people still want new cars."

Lots of places repaired cars; lots sold used ones. Would longevity and a strong reputation create a niche in a crowded market?

In August, the Weathers sales staff had sold only 45 used cars - far short of its goal of 80 to 100. In September, the tally was 22; in October, 25.

Without Dodge inventory loans, every car the Weathers men bought at auction drew on cash reserves. Weathers Motors had to act like Weathers Bank, too.

Larry Weathers III checked online webinars to study sales techniques that help lower borrowing costs and improve financial results. He logged on to Facebook each morning to write self-help messages about life and post ads of vehicles for sale.

As tough as things were at Weathers, Chrysler itself was still in trouble. In October, after disappointing sales results, Peter Fong, the Moorestown resident promoted after bankruptcy, was out as top U.S. sales executive and gone from Chrysler.

"It floored me," said Junior, speechless at the continued shakeout. Company president Jim Press would also be gone in months.

The automaker was on pace to finish 2009 with 36 percent fewer sales than the year before. For the first time since 1962, Chrysler would sell fewer than a million cars nationally (931,000), little consolation for the Weatherses.

"Shingles. Stress. Business is sloooow," Junior wrote in an e-mail. "I've got a new-car operation, with all its overhead which I can't shed, and no new-car franchise."

On Dec. 16, 2009, a new federal law ordered the automakers to give rejected dealers the right to appeal through binding arbitration. Perhaps franchises would be restored or cash settlements given out.

Junior began pursuing an arbitration claim, without a lawyer to save money, but he was dubious.

So it stoked his cynicism about politics when, on Jan. 11, he saw Chrysler chief executive Sergio Marchionne glad-handing Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other congressional leaders at the international auto show in Detroit. It made Junior cringe.

"He's got his arm around her, squeezing her," he said, derisively.

As part of the bailout, the government had become part-owner of Chrysler, with Fiat a minority owner. Yet Marchionne was dismissive of the government's effort to aid rejected dealers. He told reporters in Detroit that Chrysler might challenge the new arbitration law.

"Ask me what fairness is involved in all this," Marchionne told Automotive News. "Why doesn't anyone ask what's fair to Chrysler?"

Two nights later, Marchionne went even further, telling the Automotive News World Congress that Chrysler's 789 dealers had been rejected "equitably and fairly."

"My conscience is clear," he was quoted as saying.

Junior knew the chance of reinstatement was slim. But he hoped arbitration would force Chrysler to tell him exactly why Weathers Dodge had been cut.

"I will give them grief (wishful thinking) as long as I can," he wrote in mid-January.

No specific answers were forthcoming in the many e-mail exchanges and letters that followed, including conversations he initiated with the office of U.S. Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa).

"Sen. Casey's office has contacted Chrysler . . . for me," he wrote in late January.

But Chrysler told Casey's people "my dealership information is proprietary and will not be given to me because of the impending legal actions by any number of dealers," Weathers explained.

"So much for relief under HR 3288. A political sham."

Although General Motors was being conciliatory and reinstating dealers, Chrysler continued to take a hard line.

By March, Junior's efforts through his local lawmakers were apparently leading nowhere. Aides to Casey and U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak (D., Pa.) "do not paint a very good picture of the process," he said.

"Talked to another rejectee yesterday," he added. "He's closed completely, empty building, does not know what to do. So, we're a little better, open, losing money, but at least occupied."

On March 9, an attorney in Weathers' arbitration case sent him a letter:

"Chrysler Group is currently in the process of collecting and reviewing documents that may pertain to your dealership, and will produce such documents in a timely fashion," lawyer Dyane L. O'Leary wrote.

Chrysler spokeswoman Kathy Graham said the company would not discuss specific dealer terminations with the media.

By the end of the month, Junior harbored no illusions. "They have no intention of cooperating," he said.

A new foe

In April, Junior found blood in his urine.

He went to the hospital down the street from his dealership. Doctors found bladder cancer, and surgeons removed the benign lesions.

But the news got worse. Specialists in Center City found six malignant tumors on his liver, one on his brain. He had metastatic melanoma, a lethal skin cancer.

Junior's oncologist at the Abramson Cancer Center of the University of Pennsylvania, Lynn M. Schuchter, had a manner that was soft but straightforward - like Junior's.

"This is not a curable cancer," said Schuchter, a researcher and clinician. "The average life span for someone with this is nine to 10 months. It can be shorter or longer."

Junior appreciated her honesty. The tumors, she told him, seemed fairly recent. His cancer had probably become active after the family franchise was revoked, 11 months earlier.

Junior had seen doctors about two decades earlier to remove melanoma from his face, and he had been considered cured.

"We think immune mechanisms may help keep a melanoma in check," Schuchter said. And stress can affect an immune system, though exactly how remains unknown.

What did he do for a living? Had there been "a particularly stressful thing in your life?" Schuchter asked when she met with Junior and his wife, Helene, for an hour on May 4.

"I'm in sales," Junior responded.

Schuchter saw he was upset. "He was very quiet and sad. But it seemed like it was more than just the melanoma."

It was Helene Weathers who told the doctor about the Chrysler bankruptcy, the loss of the dealership, her husband's sadness.

Slowly, the oncologist came to understand why he seemed so distracted.

"As we got into talking about the dealership," Schuchter said, "I mean, that has been a huge impact: the worry and the anxiety. He really cares about the employees there.

"He has to fight for his life," the doctor said, "but at the same time he's still really worried about his dealership and his people."

The line between work and family had always been blurry for Junior, but now with cancer, this much was clear: He had to withdraw his arbitration claim to win back his franchise.

"One of the hardest parts for Larry," Helene Weathers said, "was laying off all those people."

“What it’s done to him,” she said, turning to her husband one morning in their sunroom: “I get very emotional.”

Contact staff writer Maria Panaritis at 215-854-2431 or mpanaritis@phillynews.com.