Remembering Sheila Loftus

by Chasidy Rae Sisk

Founder, editor and publisher of Hammer & Dolly. Executive director of WMABA. Hall of Eagles inductee. Founder of CRASH Network. Co-founder of the Women’s Industry Network (WIN). One of the first Most Influential Women honorees.

Any auto body professional would be proud to hold a single honorific from this list of impressive accomplishments, but Sheila Loftus never settled for mediocrity. As the executive director of WMABA and publisher of Hammer & Dolly from the early 1970s until 2007, this fearless trailblazer tirelessly advocated for the collision repair industry – even after her 2008 retirement.

Her death on May 13, at age 79, struck a blow to the hearts of many industry veterans who proudly recalled cherished memories of their friend.

“Sheila was a very intense woman,” shared Lou DiLisio (Automotive Industry Consulting, Inc.) who met Loftus in the mid-1980s at the Collision Industry Conference (CIC) where she was “a regular fixture. It’s tough to describe her because people saw her in a lot of different lights. Many were intimidated by Sheila because she had no problem expressing her thoughts. At the time, it was unusual for a woman to be in this industry…especially a woman who told you exactly what was on her mind! You may not have always agreed with her, but you had to respect her.”

Retired collision professional Frank Krauss first met Loftus at a WMABA meeting in the 1970s. “She was very funny and smart. Through her articles and her advocacy, she helped our shop – and our industry – in many ways. Sheila was an incredibly special person.”

“There was Prince and Cher, but there was also Sheila; she never really needed her last name because everyone knew exactly who Sheila was,” acknowledged retired industry leader Chuck Sulkala. “There was no need for a last name. People simply knew who she was: a major force to be reckoned with!”

“Sheila was one of a kind; she was an amazing individual,” agreed Mike Anderson (Collision Advice). “Her heart bled for shops and for the consumer, and she acted as their voice. Their needs served as her moral compass. Sheila was ahead of her time. Looking back at all the people she mentored and things she accomplished…you’d expect her to have a Superwoman cape! She was the glue that held this industry together during tough times.”

“At the first annual I-CAR meeting in Chicago, a camera hung around the neck of the only woman in the audience. I overheard her passionately discussing OEM procedures, and amazed, I asked who she was. When she introduced herself as Sheila Loftus and told me about her publication, Hammer & Dolly, I got on her mailing list immediately, and from that point on, we were very good friends,” recounted Tony Lombardozzi, president of the Coalition for Collision Repair Excellence (CCRE). “I called her the first lady of the collision industry.”

Yet, Loftus was a powerful, determined woman working in an industry dominated by men.

“Not a lot of women at the time were willing to jump in and do what Sheila did,” lauded WMABA Past President Torchy Chandler (Chandler’s Collision Center; Columbia, MD), who met Loftus when she opened her shop in 1975. “When I first started, there weren’t many women in the industry, and the few of us working in this field kept quiet. Sheila was a groundbreaker. She butted heads with the best of them and always said what she wanted to say because she had the ammo to back it up. She’d testify for bills in Annapolis, and she blasted them in the insurance commissioner’s office. Sheila was a forceful dynamo everywhere she went.”

“You always hear about a woman in a man’s world, but Sheila was a trailblazer who could hold her own with anyone,” Anderson insisted. “She was an amazing woman and one of the greatest mentors in my life.”

“People have tried to emulate Sheila, but she was one of a kind,” DiLisio emphasized. “She was one of the first women to come in and become one of the guys. She fit in and would go toe-to-toe with you. She was a pioneer in a man’s industry.”

“She enjoyed tremendous success as a woman in a man’s industry,” agreed retired industry leader Clark Plucinski. “She was a paradox who fought – and I mean, really fought – for the little guy. Sheila was fearless. She was afraid of no one.”

Through her association leadership roles, Loftus focused on uniting repairers, and her ferocity as a journalist took the industry by storm.

“Sheila understood the nuts and bolts of the collision industry without ever losing sight of the big picture,” contributed retired industry veteran Mike McCarroll. “She was brilliant and very much aware of our need to keep focused on our strength in numbers. She was my friend, and I miss her a lot.”

Referencing airbag defects in the early 1980s, DiLisio stated, “She stood up and fought them through her articles. She held their feet to the fire and brought the industry together on an issue we didn’t know how to address. She was great at bringing people together. Sheila was powerful.”

“Sheila had the fearlessness and endless curiosity to be a successful reporter in this industry,” shared John Yoswick (CRASH Network). “She never shied away from asking the tough questions or fiercely advocating for collision repairers. I’ve long felt that few people worked harder on the industry’s behalf than Sheila.”

“She wrote about controversial subjects and always fought for the little guy,” Anderson added. “She never went anywhere without her paper, pen and camera. She was often underappreciated, but that didn’t matter. Sheila just kept going; she made things happen.”

“Sheila wasn’t afraid to ask questions, so when she approached the microphone at CIC meetings, everyone cringed,” Lombardozzi chuckled. “You never knew what she was going to ask, but even though many people disagreed with what she said, everyone respected her. She was a true journalist who really investigated every story which is exactly what this industry needs. And we saw changes as a result of the content she produced.

“She took on every controversial problem this industry had, whether it was training, the insurance industry or legislative battles,” he continued. “Some people disliked the articles she wrote, but everyone recognized ‘that lady’ knew what she was doing. Her convictions were strong, and she spoke up about anything she felt might hurt collision repairers; Sheila always had the industry at heart and fought to push it in the right direction.”

Although her tenacity often led to contentious encounters with collision colleagues, Loftus earned respect, admiration and quite the reputation for her dedication to doing what she felt was right.

“In some of my industry consulting work, the topic of ‘Sheila’ seems to have always come up…and was usually followed by the questions, ‘What can we do to avoid her?’ ‘How do we deal with her?’ and ‘What is she like?’” according to Sulkala. “I simply could not answer those questions, except to say, ‘You don’t want her against you, and it is for sure she will not be on your side, but she will be straight with you and tell you exactly what she thinks. She has passion for what she believes is the right thing to do, and she will act on that passion regardless of who you are. And she will be tenacious.’ And she was all of that and more.”

Responding to clients that were told to “stay clear of Sheila,” Sulkala warned, “If you have something to hide, you can’t dig a hole deep enough to get away. She will find you.”

In her efforts to better the collision repair industry, Loftus mentored many, but everyone who interacted with her learned something.

“Don’t be afraid to speak up, but always know what you’re talking about,” Chandler recollected the most valuable lesson she learned from Loftus. “Gather the information you need to support the viewpoint you’re trying to get across to help someone understand. You’ll need that data to back you up and give you a leg to stand on if you want to succeed.”

“A lot of people are willing to live by principle but not willing to die by it,” Anderson repeated an important lesson Loftus taught him.

DiLisio entered the industry when he was 20 years old with a tendency to trust everyone. “Sheila took me under her wing and taught me that you can’t always trust what people say or do because they’re promoting their own agenda. She helped me navigate that situation and helped me embrace the lesson.”

Sheila taught Krauss “not to try to outsmart the insurance companies. She was very knowledgeable about how things operated between body shops and the insurance industry. For someone who didn’t work in a shop, she sure knew a lot about it.”

“Even when I’m in a room with folks who completely disagree with me, I know there’s a way to encourage them to open their minds so we can understand each other’s points of view,” Plucinski stated. “Sheila and I didn’t always agree, but she taught me that we could be respectful of each other and look at things from a different angle.

“When the students are ready, the teacher will appear,” he added. “Sheila was the teacher, and she was one of the pioneers to put our industry on the map. She worked hard and insisted we get involved. She mentored me, and my relationship with her absolutely accelerated my growth in this field. She had the ability to transform those around her to make them stronger.”

Friends also shared some of their favorite memories of Loftus. Several individuals mentioned the fish-eye story, but as the offending party in the tale, Sulkala recounted it in detail.

“During an independent fact-finding mission to Taiwan to visit aftermarket parts manufacturers, about a dozen of us were at a luncheon meeting, seated around this big table. The food was arranged in the middle, on a huge lazy susan, so everyone could help themselves. Long before it was fashionable, Sheila was vegan, so she would not ‘eat anything with eyes’ as she told us. Well, one of the items on the menu was a whole broiled fish that had not been dressed, so this good-sized fish looked at me as we took turns filling our plates. On the other side, there was a particularly delicious item, so I kept turning the table so it would be in front of me for my dining pleasure.

“What I did not realize was that, while that item was directly in front of me, the fish with the eyes would end up halfway around the table, staring up at Sheila. She eventually found out that I was the one who caused that fish to be ever-present in front of her, watching her eat.”

Although Chandler’s memory came from 50 years ago, she remembers it “like it was yesterday. As we walked across the parking lot at my shop, she put her arm around me and said, ‘Stick with me kid, and I’ll make you a star.’”

Lombardozzi fondly recounted a time when Sheila and a couple other women decided to repair a Chevrolet Citation with a structurally and cosmetically damaged unibody.

“They started that repair at the beginning and followed it through to completion to demonstrate that I-CAR methodology could work if you paid attention and to prove that women belong in this industry.”

Krauss listed a two-week trip to Australia for an international body shop association meeting and Loftus’s wedding on the back of a boat as some of his best memories. DiLisio laughingly remembered Loftus twirling around the dance floor with CAPA’s Jack Gillis…and a broom in a nod to someone calling her “Broom-Hilda.”

Anderson’s memory was a little more sentimental than most.

“One year, when I was planning to dress as the Easter bunny to visit a children’s hospital, I was having trouble with my costume. Not only did Sheila assist with that, she and Sandra Quinn hopped on board and helped me raise money for the hospital. She convinced shops to donate and went with me to visit over 300 kids. That really touched my heart.”

The memory of Sheila Loftus lives on in those she inspired directly – and indirectly – leaving a lasting legacy in her wake. She barrelled right through the challenges that many have found insurmountable and earned others’ admiration.

“Those who didn’t get to know Sheila personally missed out,” Yoswick opined. “While we were always cordial during the time we were both working in the industry, it was really only in the last 10 or 12 years that I developed a real friendship and appreciation for her as a person. She was exceedingly generous. She cared so deeply about her family. She remained ever-curious and was always kind to not just her friends but really anyone she encountered.”

Sulkala imagines what Loftus is up to in the afterlife:

“I am quite sure that she is already, right now, very busy interviewing many in our industry who have gone before us, looking to find out what they now think of their decision to do this or that. I can just imagine that she is peppering a few of them by pointing out how perhaps the result may have turned out just as she had expected back when things were happening and she was pushing for change. I can even see that ever-present piece of white cardboard that she used on her camera as a flash deflector. Rest well and get the scoop once again, my persistent friend. I look forward to seeing you and getting the inside scoop as only you could record it.”

Want more? Check out the July 2022 issue of Hammer & Dolly!