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The story behind Pat’s Tools, an El Cajon institution, starts with Billy Gene Medcalf’s broken left hand. In 1976, he smashed it between a motorboat and a garage door, and was forced to take a leave from his job as an auto construction mechanic.

To fight boredom, he repaired a couple of broken fishing poles he’d found in his garage. He sold them and others at Kobey’s Swap Meet at the Midway Drive-In Theater. He and his wife, Pat, were among the now bustling outdoor market’s first sellers.

“We expanded pretty quick into selling tools,” Pat Medcalf said. Then her husband, famously stubborn, realized there was no reason they couldn’t take their operation on the road, much like the roving trucks of large tool companies that went from garage to garage selling tools.

They’d be even more appealing to independent businesses, Medcalf reasoned, because he would offer used tools. The couple bought a small van. They started frequenting auctions, liquidations and pawn shops, looking for deals on tools they could drive around the county and resell. They bought so many, they needed a bigger van. So Bill, who preferred that name to his given one of Billy Gene, bought a bread truck.

But he kept buying tools, and soon outgrew the bread truck. In 1977, little more than a year after Bill’s fateful accident, the Medcalfs opened their first store in North Park and called it Pat’s Tools.

“It was as much his business as it was mine,” Pat Medcalf said of her husband, who died March 28 at the age of 82, “but he said we should keep everything in my name. He said it was because if we ever got divorced, I would get everything anyway. Make it easier.”

The Medcalfs did not divorce. Over the next three decades, their tool shop grew, moving several times before opening up shop on El Cajon Boulevard in El Cajon, where its aisles today display used tools and new ones alike, many still in decades-old packaging.

The store relied with each passing year on Bill Medcalf’s knowledge of the obscurest of tools and on an inventory that grew more diverse with each auction he visited. That reputation led less expert employees at larger chain stores to refer customers with strange requests to try their luck at Pat’s Tools.

“Our knowledge base was what we sold,” said Bill Hayes, who has worked for Pat’s Tools for 18 years. “When he would go out to auctions, he had an unerring instinct for what would sell.”

He would scoop up entire inventories and haul them back to Pat’s Tools.

He did that until 10 years ago, when deteriorating health forced him to retire and relinquish full control of the tool shop to its namesake. His family and friends said he was mulishly stubborn. But he felt deep empathy for the down-and-out and their struggles because his impoverished upbringing allowed him to relate to them, friends and family said.

“He was a tough old Texas boot,” Hayes said.

Billy Gene Medcalf was born Dec. 23, 1927, in rural Oklahoma. His family moved to California amid the Depression as pickers following the seasonal cycles of fruit. They often lived under a tree, Pat Medcalf said.

Medcalf finished the eighth grade and worked odd jobs before joining the military. As a civilian, he worked as a mechanic and on railroads, tapping his love of building and repairing. He married three times and had three children before meeting Pat at a San Diego gathering of Parents Without Partners, a social club for single parents. Pat also had three children.

In the cluttered back office of the tool shop she still runs, where stray tools drift among stacks of paper and unframed certificates of appreciation adorn the walls, Pat Medcalf tapped the keys of a Casio printing calculator to figure how long she and her husband had been married. The machine’s printer rattled and the answer came up in faded ink on paper tape: 36 years last October.

They married in 1973 and soon took on their joint venture, Pat learning the tool trade from her husband. With each expansion of the business, from swap meet booth to van to bread truck to storefront, Medcalf went back to work as a mechanic to support the family until the latest venture found its footing.

During family road trips, Medcalf insisted on stopping in on friends who might have tools for sale, much to the children’s frustration, said Christina Jose, his stepdaughter.

For most of their married life, Medcalf arrived early at the tool shop, where rusted wrenches and gleaming hammers share shelf space with metal wiss snips, cutting nippers and thousands of other items in its inventory. “Bill knew what every tool was for,” Hayes said. “I’ve never seen him stumped.”

And he could figure out how to use most of them for makeshift repairs. “He was a wizard with making stuff work,” Hayes said. “If you showed it to a mechanical engineer with a degree, he’d have a heart attack, but it would function just fine.”

Medcalf had little tolerance for incompetency at his shop and would take over a task as small as sweeping with a push broom if he saw an employee doing it inefficiently.

“He was demanding and cantankerous,” Hayes said. “But then you realized he was the greatest guy in the world.”

His softness revealed itself in his granddaughter’s unfailing ability to convince him to give up his serving of ice cream when they ate at diners. And in his interactions with customers who often came into the shop looking for a tool for a repair they were doing themselves, often for lack of money. He knew for some of his customers, buying replacements was not an option.

“He would tell you if a guy came in and really needed a tool, and you could tell he was down on his luck, give it to him,” Hayes said. “He had come up the hard way and he had a great empathy for people who did the same.”

Medcalf rarely let scrapes or injuries slow him down. If a bolt gashed his bald scalp while he worked beneath a car, he covered it with a towel to stop the flow of blood and kept repairing.

“I loved that devil in him,” Hayes said.

He found his greatest personal joys in car racing and boating. For 20 years he and Pat volunteered at the Bayfair powerboat races on Mission Bay, and on occasion took a boat out themselves, just the two of them. “We could be alone and no one knew where we were and no one could bother us,” she said.

Medcalf suffered his first stroke in 2000, and his health declined progressively over the next 10 years. His wife stopped allowing him to visit the tool shop, though he never stopped asking to go, she said.

“He always found something we were doing wrong,” she said. In his final years, tainted slightly by dementia, he spoke of some of his unfulfilled dreams, like having wished he’d learned to fly, his wife said.

Pat’s Tools counts itself as the last of the county’s independent tool shops, whose inventory of specialized tools makes it a haven for do-it-yourselfers. Since her husband’s death, Pat Medcalf has decided to sell it. If she can’t, she said, it will close.

Please contact Adrian Florido directly at adrian.florido@voiceofsandiego.org and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/adrianflorido.

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