The handsomely hewn face and blue eyes of Tony Kuchel look out across the cosy living room of “Bear Lodge” in Nuriootpa, oil paints gamboling in a contest of light and shade across the canvas.
Tony smiles easily, knowingly, from the frame, flanked by the cabin’s hefty log walls, which glow golden brown with tactile warmth.
The portrait was a recent gift from a friend, explains Tony’s wife, Anne, painted in tribute to the man she shared her life with for the better part of 45 years.
“It astounded us as a family how well-known he was and how he was so highly thought of,” she says, red hair flaming in light thrown down from a pair of wagon wheel chandeliers her son, Jacob built for the log cabin, a passion project of Tony and Anne’s that would be just as at home nestled in the forests of Lake Tahoe.
It’s only been a year since Tony died, passing away from cancer after a decade’s battle with ‘Farmer’s Lung’, a serious respiratory condition caused by fungal spores in material like grain and compost, no doubt found in countless loads Tony transported over his life in trucking.
So severe was his illness that in 2017 he needed a lung transplant just to stay alive. With his immune system repressed, he developed melanomas on his face, which, tragically, spread to other parts of his body.
“It was a shock, because he was getting treatment for the melanomas. He’d had radiation therapy and everything,” says Anne, who turns 66 this year.
“Then the cancer went to his lungs, and within about three weeks, he passed away.”
In the corner of the cabin, a crackling combustion heater wards off the chill of lengthening winter days.
This is Anne’s haven, imbued with memories of Tony and a life raising their three children, Kendall, now 39, Jacob, 34 and Jordan, 33.
But it’s by no means a mournful place. There’s happiness here, still, for Anne, who wears an unassuming resilience as striking as her cheerful pink ombré sweater.
“I’ve got such a great family and friends. They really are magnificent,” she says, when asked how the past year has been for her.
“I don’t mind my own company, so I probably cope a lot better than some people might.”
Family is the nucleus of the Kuchels’ way of life, perhaps even more than most, with a third generation well ensconced in the family trucking and landscape supplies business, Kuchel Contractors, which was founded by Tony’s parents, Max and Edna in 1950.
With all three siblings, and two spouses, working alongside Anne in various aspects of the business, work time often doubles as family time.
“It’s good because we also get personal socialising out of the way during business hours!” laughs artist, Kendall, who works in the office, but can just as easily swing up into a loader or drive a delivery truck if needed. Her husband, Bruce Donaldson is Kuchel’s retail manager.
“I’ve got one of my kids here on the day that Jordan’s kids are here, they can all play together quietly in the corner as well.”
In the main office at Kuchel’s, a stone’s throw from Bear Lodge, the siblings flit in and out of the conversation as they go about business on a busy weekday at the yard.
None of them seem able to sit still for long, not surprising for a creative bunch who grew up working with their hands, and travelling around Australia in Tony’s hot rods, a lifelong passion and master-craft, which he passed on to all three of his offspring.
Jacob, now Kuchel’s managing director/operations manager and a diesel mechanic by trade, was taught by his father to drive a loader at age nine.
“I used to come in after school and go sit at his desk with him and read the truck magazines, talk to him and notice what he was doing,” says Jacob, whose partner is well-known Barossa singer, Philippa Lynas.
“I think I was always going to grow up and take over eventually, which has now probably happened a little bit sooner than originally planned.
“But it’s been good, being thrown in the deep end.”
Jordan, an auto-electrician, runs the workshop and says he finds it difficult to imagine a work life without his family around him.
“I think it was a given from the get-go,” he says softly, black beanie pulled snugly around his ears. His smile carries echoes of his father’s.
“I grew up around it and family is what it all orientates around, I suppose.”
His wife, Lisa, will eventually take over completely from his mother in administration and book work, allowing Anne to spend more time gardening, or travelling with her German Shepherd, Holly, who she adopted in November for company.
Anne’s motorhome is a TranStar International, converted from a 1954 Ford cab by Tony about five years ago, meaning a truck licence is needed to drive it.
“I decided I don’t want to give up travelling, so in May I got my licence in the truck, and I drove to Darwin and back with my dog,” says Anne.
As a tomboy who grew up in Penrice playing for hours on her own and admiring cars, it was no surprise she was drawn to Tony, who’s obsession with hot rods began at age 15.
She was doing book work at Adelaide Brighton Cement when they first met. As a truck driver for his parents, he was a frequent visitor to Anne’s office to fill out paperwork.
“He always told me that when he saw me walking across the car park at Adelaide Brighton, he knew I was going to be married to him one day,” Anne recalls with a smile.
It’s just one of many fond memories she carries into a new phase of her life, surrounded by her capable children, and Kuchels’ budding fourth generation, Texas, Toluca, Evie and Flynn.
“I think Tony taught us all the values of being honest and doing the best job you can,” says Anne, an ethos clearly reflected in the character of this tight-knit and hardworking family.
For the Kuchels, honouring Tony this year will be done in the most fitting way possible, with the Tony Kuchel Memorial Round-up on October 23, a charity show and shine for trucks, cars and bikes that will raise money for Mates Against Melanoma.
The event poster features Jordan’s fiery amber pickup truck, the last hot rod Tony had a hand in painting, a stunning finale to numerous others he built from the ground up throughout his lifetime.
It was “head down, bum up” working on that car with his father, Jordan recalls, with Tony quietly leading by example, as was his way.
“He wasn’t a big talker, it was just nice to be with him,” adds Jacob.
“There’s not a day that you don’t think about him, and that won’t go away.
“He had a big impact on all of us.”