It's been a rough year for Thomas Estep, and therefore for his wife, Donna.

It's been a rough year for Thomas Estep, and therefore for his wife, Donna.

He was hospitalized in January with complications from exposure to Agent Orange, according to Donna Estep. He had to go into a Veterans Administration hospital again in February and in March.

"We could see the writing on the wall," she said.

With no buyers in sight, the Esteps had to say a sad farewell to De's Auto Service, which Thomas Estep started with Clinton Dalton in February 1977.

It was done with the heaviest of hearts, Donna Estep said last week, as she and her husband offered seasonal thanks to the customers who had supported them for 31 years, the last 29 at 3952 Broadway.

"We just decided with Tom's health the way it's been and they couldn't figure out what was wrong with him and he wasn't getting any better, it was just time," Donna Estep said.

"It was hard to close," she added. "We had customers stand in the office and cry while I was crying with them."

"I have always said that you're lucky in life if you go through life doing a job that you get paid for that is something you enjoy doing," her husband said. "If I had some other way of making money to feed my family, I'd have worked on cars for free.

"To me, working on cars was like figuring out a puzzle."

Tom and Donna Estep moved to the Grove City area in 1968 after he got out of the U.S. Navy to live near some relatives in Commercial Point.

They didn't know anyone in Grove City.

Soon, they knew everyone. It was just that kind of place, Donna Estep recalled.

"My husband started out working for someone in Grove City, and we just lived outside of Grove City at the time, and we just decided we had good customers," she said. "Back then, we knew everyone in town."

But husband Tom was initially gun-shy about taking the big step of starting his own auto repair operation, even though it was work his father and grandfather had engaged in.

"It kind of ran in the family," Tom Dalton said.

Family friend Dalton initially went into business with Tom Estep, hence the name of the shop, but it was only to give his partner a push. After only about two weeks, the Esteps bought Dalton out.

"But we still have a dear friendship," Donna Estep said.

De's Auto Service was a success pretty much from the beginning.

"I think the biggest thing was Tom's honesty," his wife said. "I've been married to Tom for 41 years and he's the most honest person I know."

De's Auto was one of the original 10 AAA-approved facilities in central Ohio, Donna Estep said. The president of the Better Business Bureau was a customer at the time and recommended them, she said.

"Tom had customers in there who had been with us since day one," Donna Estep said. "We didn't only love our customers because they came in and paid us money. If one of our customers had a family member who died, we'd try to go to the funeral. If a customer needed a ride home, we gave them a ride home.

"We did our best."

The Esteps' son began working around the shop from the time he was 11 and during summers. After briefly attending college, he decided he wanted to follow in the family tradition.

Tom suffered the first of a series of strokes in 1998, and Donna and their son kept the business going until they all finally decided it was time to close.

"It was with a very heavy heart for the both of us," Donna Estep said.

The family owns the property on Broadway, and it's up for sale. They're hoping to get a good price for it.

Mostly, though, Donna Estep said that the reason they wanted to now discuss closing of the shop so many months ago was to let their customers know how very much their patronage meant.

"We miss them, to be honest," she said, choking back sobs.