Canby resident Gary Alexander will be the first to tell you: His car is much more than just a car.
The highly customized 2005 Ford Mustang GT proudly bears the name of its model, of course, but if you look closely, you’ll see another word prominently featured amid the red, white and blue paint job, bald eagles, American flags and other patriotic imagery: Tribute.
And that’s exactly what it’s meant to be: Alexander’s “Tribute Mustang” is a tribute to all veterans and first responders — particularly those who served during the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York City. The car has been a staple at the Canby 9/11 Remembrance Ceremony most years.
Alexander says it’s a message that he believes means more now than it ever has before, as law enforcement across the country comes under increased scrutiny in the wake of weeks of unrest aimed at racial inequality and police violence against Black Americans.
“My goal is never forgetting our veterans, thanking our first responders for the good that they do for us every day,” Alexander tells the Canby Now Podcast. “We’ve got to have them. We can’t lose them. Unfortunately, there are a couple of bad ones here and there, but you can’t label everybody as being bad.”
Though Alexander works for Canby Ford, he is not someone who spent a lot of time restoring or rebuilding cars in his spare time.
“This was actually the first one I’ve ever done,” he said. “But I have always had a soft spot for Mustangs. I always wanted a ’67, ’68. That was the period I grew up in.”
When he started the customization, he didn’t have a direction in mind. He said he was actually inspired by watching a NASCAR race on television, and seeing the patriotism that was on display at the arena.
The first piece was a custom tailgate featuring the imagery of a flag, eagle and the silhouette of a kneeling service member and bearing the words, “Never Forget Our Fallen Soldiers.” From there, it sort of took on a life of its own.
“That’s what the car does,” Alexander says. “It represents our servicemen and women — the ones that still serve and the ones we’ve lost.”
The car often stirs emotions in people, he says, particularly those with family members who were killed in action. It’s been signed by a number of people prominent in the veteran and law enforcement communities, including Taya Kyle, widow of U.S. Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle, author of the best-selling autobiography American Sniper.
Their names and messages appear inside the car and under the hood. Taya Kyle’s is prominently displayed across the casing of the Mustang’s cold-air intake system.
“It’s been an amazing journey over the last five, going on six years,” Alexander says. “I’ve met so many people I know I never would have come close to meeting. If somebody had asked me if I thought four wheels could do all this, I would have said, ‘No.’ There are still a lot of great American people out there that give you a lot of encouragement.”
The Mustang was featured at the World of Speed in Wilsonville earlier this year — becoming one of the last vehicles the museum ever displayed before it was forced to close permanently. The car has won over 40 awards at various car shows and other events.
“I’ve never looked at that like, ‘Oh, I won something,'” he says. “I look at it like this is a win for all the people we’ve lost.”
This summer, Alexander’s “Mustang on a mission” has taken on another cause, as he uses it to raise funds and awareness for The Canby Center and St. Vincent de Paul Food Bank at St. Patrick Catholic Church — both of which have seen greatly increased demand during the coronavirus economic crisis.
“It’s all about supporting our community in its time of need,” Alexander says. “If I can make people stop, for just a few minutes a day, and think about the ones that have served and what we have around us — that’s the motivating factor for me. And if, through the car, I can raise some dollars that help people through a bad time, that’s better than the car sitting in the garage doing nothing.”
Find Alexander and his Mustang at the Canby Farmers Market each Saturday through Sept. 20, where he will be accepting cash donations for local food banks, which are able to provide a month’s worth of food for a family of four for only $5. Through cash donations and T-shirt sales this summer, Alexander has raised more than $600 so far.