published Tuesday, January 3rd, 2012

Competitor's kindness helps tornado-hit auto shop in Ringgold reopen

Cotton Perry was scheduled to reopen Cotton’s Service Center on Monday in Ringgold, Ga. His shop was hit by a tornado in April.
Cotton Perry was scheduled to reopen Cotton’s Service Center on Monday in Ringgold, Ga. His shop was hit by a tornado in April.
Photo by Tim Barber.

Eight months ago, Cotton Perry's Ringgold, Ga., mechanic shop, the one he worked to build for 32 years, was ripped apart by a tornado.

But on Monday, a new seven-bay shop opened in its place, and the restoration would not have happened without the unexpected kindness of his neighbors, said the 65-year-old Perry.

"In any other county in the world it wouldn't have happened," he said, holding back tears. "We didn't have to go to a soup line somewhere. I feel like I have always taken an extra step to help people, and this is the good Lord blessing me in my time of need."

When Perry's business, Ringgold Service Center, was turned to rubble last April, he sent his few employees home for two weeks and told them he didn't know if he could afford to keep them.

He had built a name for himself over the years in Ringgold, he said. A former drag racer, he was a local boy and people knew him as an honest man.

"Everybody trusts him. [As a mechanic] he won't fabricate a problem. If he does it, it had to be done," said his longtime friend Marty Heatherly. "People have come to respect him for his honesty."

Perry never socialized with his competitor down the street but sent work there from time to time. So he was surprised when the business offered to let him and his employees come work at the shop to make ends meet till Perry's shop was rebuilt.

"They didn't know it would take eight months," he said.

Not long after the tornado, when his insurance company delayed a financial settlement because of fine print in his contract, a local bank offered to lend him the money because of his good credit, he said.

His next-door neighbors, Marty and Mark Heatherly, offered to be his contractors and helped him find the best deal to rebuild Ringgold Service Center.

And on Monday, he was scheduled to open the mechanic shop of his dreams, Perry said. Mahogany desks. Leather sofas. Granite countertops. Venetian plaster.

Marty said he was willing to do whatever he could to help Perry. In 1976, when he and his brother moved into the home beside Perry, Marty said, his parents had just divorced and they needed a father figure nearby.

"Cotton took us under his wing, took us hunting," Marty said. "I learned a lot of how to grow up and do things right. We needed somebody. We could have gone bad."

For Perry's new building, the Heatherly brothers did everything for cost and said it was a privilege to help.

When he was first brought in to see the new shop, Perry was stunned.

"I like nice, neat, pretty things," he said. "My home is not this nice when you walk in. When I first saw it I said, 'Wow.' I am excited to come back to work, and the good customers will come by and say, 'Wow.'"

Contact staff writer Joan Garrett at or 423-757-6601.

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about Joan Garrett McClane...

Joan Garrett McClane has been a staff writer for the Times Free Press since August 2007. Before becoming a general assignment writer for the paper, she wrote about business, higher education and the court systems. She grew up the oldest of five sisters near Birmingham, Ala., and graduated with a master's and bachelor's degrees in journalism from the University of Alabama. Before landing her first full-time job as a reporter at the Times Free Press, ...

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