Ray Lambrecht died last week, quietly and privately and at home, much the same way he lived during the long weekend last year when the former Chevy dealer’s lifetime collection of cars sold for $2.8 million and drew 30,000 people to Pierce.
He stayed inside those three days last September, curtains closed, as the auto auction was overwhelming his hometown and jamming traffic outside the house he and his wife, Mildred, had built across from Lambrecht Chevrolet after World War II.
And though the 96-year-old died Sept. 22, his family did not publicly announce his death.
They are a tight, private family, said Pierce County Sheriff Rick Eberhardt.
“But if you got to know them, you were kind of, well, I always felt like I was always welcome there.”
The sheriff visited the couple from time to time, and the weeks before the sale were stressful, he said. They felt like prisoners in their own home, with so many car collectors making pilgrimages to Pierce. A sign went up near their front door: Please respect our privacy.
But the sheriff noticed a change after it was over.
“I’d swing by to see how they’re doing and, you know, they were at peace. It was over. It was a burden lifted off them. They didn’t have to worry about it anymore.”
The legend of Lambrecht had added value to the collection, branding them as something special, almost sacred, at car shows, eBay auctions and on Facebook pages: This is a Lambrecht Car.
At last year’s sale, in the farm field Lambrecht owned north of town, the auctioneer would sell his ’58 pickup for $140,000, a ’78 Corvette for $80,000, a ’77 Vega for $10,000. Even the dealership’s promotional yardsticks were going for $50 apiece.
But Ray Lambrecht started humbly, a small-town Nebraskan selling cars in a small town. He’d joined his uncle’s Chevy dealership on Main Street when he returned from the war, and he and Mildred were soon running it on their own.
“They worked six days a week for 50 years, never taking one single day of vacation or one sick day,” their daughter, Jeannie Lambrecht Stillwell, wrote last year. “They worked hard and operated their business with honesty, integrity and kindness.”
And with an emphasis on new cars, because Lambrecht didn’t like to sell used. His hometown was full of would-be buyers who made offer after offer on the dealer’s growing second-hand stable, only to be rejected.
Gerald Hixson had to wait until the auction to buy back his Bel-Air, paying four times what he had paid in 1959.
“There were quite a few of us who tried to buy cars back. I tried eight to 10, maybe even 11 times,” he said earlier this year.
Lambrecht hauled his trade-ins to empty lots he owned in town and, later, into the trees at the edge of his field. He also gathered new models, holding back Impalas and Bel-Airs and pickups.
His retirement plan, his daughter called it.
By the time the couple retired in 1996, they had stockpiled about 500 cars, with about 50 of those still considered new -- decades old but with nearly nothing on their odometers and, inside some, factory plastic still on the seats.
Last year, the family hired auctioneer Yvette VanDerBrink of South Dakota, and news of the sale made Pierce, population 1,700, the temporary center of the collector car universe.
The History Channel gave the auction three hours of prime time. The highway through town backed up for miles. And Lambrecht’s cars -- which he had kept together for so many decades -- scattered all over the world.
Last week, the sheriff stopped by to see Mildred Lambrecht. She was missing her husband, he said. They’d been married nearly seven decades but had known each other longer. They walked across the street to work together and they walked home together.
“It’s difficult,” he told her. “But you guys have been together 68 years. That’s a lot more than other people get. He got to live at home and he passed away at home. He got to stay home. He got his wish.”