Prewar Prodigy: High Schooler Betty Lou Parrish Eyes a Career in Restoring Vintage Cars

Mercedes Lilienthal

This article first appeared in Hagerty Drivers Club magazine. Click here to subscribe and join the club.

Still in high school in Athens, Tennessee, Betty Lou Parrish has found her calling: restoring vintage prewar vehicles. “Whenever you bring one back to life,” Parrish said, “you feel so accomplished.” She started young. According to her grandfather Stefan Ronnebeck, a German immigrant and accomplished craftsman who married into the family before Parrish was born, the teenager has experience welding, fabricating, panel shaping, painting, and completing electrical and engine work. The two bonded over projects, including building a log cabin and working on everything from 1920s Marmons to a 1979 Ford. “He’s supported me no matter what,” Parrish said.

Other interests have come and gone—Parrish considered becoming a veterinarian or a cosmetologist—but vintage vehicles have remained a steadfast constant. With help from the nonprofit RPM Foundation and the support of her family, Parrish was invited to work alongside LaVine Restorations in Nappanee, Indiana, for two days of rigorous job shadowing to see how a world-class prewar restoration shop functions.

Prewar prodigy body panel fitment
Jennifer Beachy

Parrish was excited yet nervous. She felt like she didn’t have “what it takes to do what they do.” Those feelings quickly waned after she met Travis LaVine and his crew and became engrossed in their work. Parrish learned how to use the English wheel, a Dake multi-hammer, a planishing hammer, and a shot bag and mallet. She also helped pour the dash mold on a classic Packard and detail million-dollar collectibles.

Travis LaVine was impressed with Parrish’s maturity. “She is a very inquisitive and intuitive young adult, which is also impressive in today’s world,” he said. “Restoration work is unequivocally a thinking person’s game,” he added. “She has the right foundation to build upon to play it well.”

Prewar Prodigy Driving condition restoration
Mercedes Lilienthal

The experience went well enough that Parrish will, upon graduating high school, join LaVine Restorations as an apprentice. The RPM Foundation will be there to assist her with gap funding and the necessary guidance she needs to navigate through the learning process.

“This is a great example of how the RPM network can benefit individual students,” said Nick Ellis, the executive director of the nonprofit organization. RPM has a volunteer ambassador corps of more than 25 collector vehicle professionals and enthusiasts across the nation who act as its “boots on the ground.” One such ambassador, Kevin Jackam, connected with Ronnebeck at a car show in Tennessee.

Parrish’s apprenticeship will, LaVine says, introduce her to all aspects of a restoration shop, including technical skills but also research and writing, project management, and financial analysis. “We need to encourage women who have an interest in the history of the automotive industry to feel connected any way they can,” said LaVine, who added that his shop has benefited from talented women since its beginning.

Prewar prodigy body work detailing
Jennifer Beachy

“Mom and Dad [Eric and Vivian LaVine] started this company in 1974 and worked in the shop together, but Mom’s the one who really took this from a one-stall business to one of the premier restoration facilities in the world now,” LaVine stated.

Parrish, for her part, was thrilled to do meaningful work in a restoration shop and is excited for her apprenticeship. “They trusted me that I knew what I was doing,” she said. “I felt honored and special.”


Check out the Hagerty Media homepage so you don’t miss a single story, or better yet, bookmark it. To get our best stories delivered right to your inbox, subscribe to our newsletters.

Click below for more about
Read next Up next: Did This Progressive-Era Couple Invent Car Collecting?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *