Chloe Knutson

Restoring Ophelia

Chloé Knutson ’16 is a gearhead ... and so much more.

When Chloé Knutson was 17, she told her father she wanted to restore the 1937 Ford Coupe he kept at his mother’s farm in Iowa.

“When we would visit my folks on the farm, Chloé would love to climb up into the package tray that sits just behind the driver’s seat,” Wayne Knutson recalled. “She was probably only 5 years old. We managed to barely get it running one summer, and I remember Chloé was so excited to ride on that package tray as we managed to get a mile or two down the road.”

That was the beginning of Chloé’s love for the car she would name “Ophelia,” a popular name for girls in 1937.

Origins of a tradition

Chloé’s request wasn’t terribly surprising. Her family has been restoring cars for three generations. “I grew up on an Iowa farm where we had old Model T Fords that had been parked in the grove for decades,” Wayne said. “One of those was the 1926 Ford Model T truck my dad had learned to drive on. Bringing it back to life became a father-son project with my dad and brother.”

Wayne continued this tradition with his own children.

“Before I was born, my dad purchased a 1940 Mercury Convertible to restore,” Chloé said. “I was around 4 years old when my dad handed me my first piece of sandpaper and taught me to sand the pieces that would later become the dashboard. I soon graduated to sanding the car doors. We redid everything with the Merc, including paint, interior, the convertible top, wiring and engine.

“In June 2003, we took the Merc to a car show in Detroit celebrating the 100th anniversary of Ford Motor Company. We won first place with a perfect score.”

The family also restored a 1933 Ford Roadster Convertible – the first car Chloé drove. “I never drove an automatic transmission car until the week before my driver’s test,” she said.

To begin work on the Ford Coupe, Wayne and Chloé made a list of all the parts they needed and had them delivered to the farm. That summer, father and daughter joined the parts and car in Iowa, driving from their home in Texas to put in 10 full days of restoration work.

“The project became a learning lab experience for Chloé since she did nearly all the ‘wrenching,’” Wayne said. “I guess I became the adviser as she tackled all the mechanical aspects that needed to be addressed: installing a new distributor, coil, starter solenoid, carburetor, fuel pump, fuel lines, belts, patching up the old wiring and a host of other detail work. I’ll never forget the moment Ophelia fired to life as Chloé hit the starter switch. The look on her face was pure joy.”

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St. Thomas: Another family tradition

Car restoration isn’t the only family tradition in Chloé’s life. She is the fourth generation on her mother’s side of the family to attend St. Thomas. Her great-grandfather, James O’Phelan, graduated in 1906. Harvey O’Phelan ’37, his son and Chloé’s grandfather, was the 1937 Tommie Award winner. Two of her uncles, Sean O’Phelan ’76 and Edward O’Phelan ’77, also attended St. Thomas.

Attending St. Thomas gave Chloé a chance to continue family history and it allowed her to live in a familiar location near relatives. Her grandfather lived just over a mile from campus. Chloé cherishes memories of summer visits while she was growing up. “We would drive to the O’Shaughnessy Library to look at various books,” she said.

As Wayne was in the Air Force for 30 years, Chloé moved around quite a bit as a child. She was born in Germany and has lived in South Carolina, Alabama, South Dakota and Texas, making the Twin Cities “pretty constant throughout my life, unlike everywhere else I’ve lived,” Chloé said, explaining another reason why she was inclined to attend St. Thomas.

She is a criminal justice major with minors in sociology and women’s studies, and intends to attend law school and then work with victims of sexual assault. She’s already talked with Karen Lange, dean of students, about working on a campus-wide sexual assault prevention program. “The plans are in the very early stages, but we aim to eradicate sexual assault as much as possible,” Chloé said.

Jessica Lane, an adjunct faculty member of the Biology Department, taught Chloé in Biology 106 – Women, Medicine and Biology. Lane could tell early on that Chloé was eager to address challenging issues. “One of the things that has impressed me the most about Chloé is her passion,” she said. “In my class we discuss a lot of issues that women face, not only here in the United States but internationally. Chloé wanted to make students more aware of some of these issues and has spoken to me about ways we could raise awareness on campus.

“You can tell when you interact with her that Chloé cares about others and is not judgmental,” Lane said. “She is optimistic but still realistic when it comes to situations in life. I think this makes her the ideal person to work with sexual assault victims. She is eager to make a difference in the world; I believe she will make that difference one day.”

An eye for things other people miss

Another passion Chloé has had the opportunity to grow at St. Thomas is photography. (She photographed President Julie Sullivan’s inauguration ceremony in 2013.) Wayne observed that his daughter seems to have an eye for things other people miss, and he believes that has helped her take excellent pictures ... and keep a vintage car running.

Chloé received her first camera when she was 7. When she started selling some of her photos in high school, she launched speCKtrum photography. And now she works as a student photographer with St. Thomas’ Photo Services.

Her supervisor, St. Thomas photographer Mark Brown, said, “When you meet Chloé, you immediately see that she’s a person who is thoughtful, curious and generally enthusiastic about life and the people who come in and out of her orbit. That makes her a good fit for virtually any photo assignment across campus.

“More than anything she has learned how to make people feel comfortable in her presence,” Brown said. “That’s a difficult thing to accomplish. It speaks volumes about her character and personality that her subjects look so relaxed in her images.”

Bringing Ophelia home

The same passion and enthusiasm Chloé applies to photography and academics continues to fuel her work on the Ford Coupe. She drove Ophelia during her senior year of high school, but like many restoration projects, the work is never done. “In 2012, Ophelia got a new windshield frame and glass, and some new spark plugs,” Chloé said. “My dad and I redid the wiring during spring break of 2013.”

Chloe Knutson Magazine

Chloé and her father Wayne with Ophelia at the Iowa farm where it all began.

They spent summer 2014 completing some final work on the car before Chloé drove her to Minnesota. The windshield from 2012 never fit correctly, and it took them two years to find another frame. Last summer’s work also included restoring a window frame they had difficulty locating and installing a new carburetor, seat belts and brakes.

“Chloé has always displayed great mechanical skills,” Wayne said. “It just kind of made sense that she’d like to tackle the Ford Coupe.”

Like most students, Chloé’s days are now filled with academic, social and professional pursuits. And while the future is uncertain, one thing is clear: Chloé’s leisure time – and garage space – is sure to be filled with automotive tools and vintage cars.

Read more from St. Thomas magazine.