Body shop owner rebuilds after fire

Published 6:16 pm Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Romeo Breau’s father was a “can” man. “He hated the word ‘can’t’…he’d whip us if we said ‘I can’t,'” recalls Romeo. “Can’t wasn’t in his vocabulary.”

As a boy, Romeo traveled everywhere with his mother and father, the youngest of nine children crowded into a big, green station wagon, (an ugly, ugly car, recalls Romeo), moving from car body shop to body shop, from job to job, making a living. His father worked with the metal. His mother did the painting.

Romeo says other children laughed when the school bus picked him up from the campgrounds and RV parks where the family set down roots. If only for a little while.

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He didn’t mind though.

“I enjoyed the life…we met a whole bunch of people,” he says.

Naturally, Romeo fell into the family business. He painted his first car when he was nine-years-old. His father saw Romeo had talent and got him a job painting bubble gum machines. Hundreds and hundreds of bubble gum machines, says Romeo. Car and body repair work followed.

He had become, like his father, a “can” man.

Romeo’s mother died when he was 14. His parents had been together for 26 years.

Romeo’s father became a “can’t” man.

“He and my mother had been together for so long and worked beside each other…I don’t hold that against him,” says Romeo.

In March of 2007, things were looking good for Romeo and his wife, Billie. They had three beautiful little girls and a little boy on the way. After moving from Red Level, he’d built a business on New Searcy Rd., right beside his home, converting an old chicken house into a body shop. He combined both his mother’s talent for painting with his father’s talent for metalwork and business was picking up.

Then, Romeo came home one night and found hell staring back at him.

Romeo Breau became a “can’t” man.

Three weeks before she gave birth to her and Romeo’s fourth child, Billie Breau was lying in bed watching television when she noticed a flicker of light in the window. She thought it was her husband, who often worked deep into the night, moving floodlights around in the body shop. But the light got bigger. Thinking nothing of it, she waited until a commercial, and then stepped to the window to look outside.

A fire was devouring the body shop, working its way inch by inch towards the front. Her first thought was that Romeo was inside. She called his cell phone. He answered. He’d gone to visit a friend to have a piece of metal welded.

“The shop is on fire!” She said.

“Well, put it out,” Romeo said. He hung up. She called back.

“No, no, the shop is on fire!” she said.

Romeo realized the seriousness of the situation.

“I’ll be right there,” he said.

When Romeo arrived, there was little he could do. Firefighters from Searcy Volunteer Fire Department and Greenville Fire Department worked to extinguish the fire, a fire that was not only destroying the 12 vehicles inside, but Romeo’s livelihood as well, the only means he had of earning a living for his wife and family of soon-to-be four.

“Just keep it away from my house,” Romeo asked the firefighters, then his thoughts turned inward. “I just felt a sharp pain in my chest…my guts twisting. Immediate stress. How was I going to feed my family? I had no tools, nothing.”

That’s when he became a “can’t” man.

But only for a few seconds.

Losing everything was a humbling experience, says Romeo. The insurance paid very little, mostly on the possessions inside the building, because the shop, itself, wasn’t insured. Billie says they were waiting until all the renovations on the shop had been completed before insuring it.

Legally, Romeo says he wasn’t responsible for the automobiles inside the shop, but morally he felt an obligation and did what he could to make things right, giving away his family’s own Tahoe for a GMC Yukon that had been destroyed by the fire.

Romeo had put almost $40,000 into a 1988 Ford Mustang, a car he’d owned since he was 16, and watched it burn as well.

Romeo says he received about $26,000 from the insurance to rebuild his life.

“We ate Ramen noodles for a long time,” he says. “Sometimes we’d put Vienna sausage in it. We sweetened water with Sweet-N-Low.”

The couple finally turned to food stamps in order to buy food for the family.

Friends, says Romeo, also begin to disappear.

“All the people I thought were my buddies, all the ones I thought were my friends, quit coming around,” he says.

But Romeo says he isn’t bitter.

“I look at it as a life lesson,” he says. “I know who I can rely on: My wife and my kids.”

Slowly, Romeo built back the business. He worked non-stop, one time 36 hours straight, says Billie, even through thunderstorms, to make the shop better then before.

“I said if I’m going to have this taken from me, then I’m going to come back with something I want,” says Romeo.

Business has been solid, but slow these last few months, which could be because of the recession, says Romeo.

Investigators never determined the cause of the fire, says Romeo. It started in the back, where the paint was stored, so a simple spark could have ignited it.

“I don’t know,” he says. “But I think it made us stronger.”