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Livonia โ€” There were few things in life Patrick Hespen enjoyed more than the rumble and roar of a powerful engine.

"When we were dating, he never had to ring the doorbell. I could always hear him pull up," said Hespen's wife Gina. "When we were married, I knew when he got home at night, because I could hear him."

Gina Hespen will no longer be able to hear the comforting sound of her husband's engine revving in the driveway. Patrick Hespen died Friday after a two-year battle with cancer. He was 36.

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When Patrick Hespen died after a two-year battle with cancer at 36, his co-workers at Chrysler decided to honor his memory with a tribute to match his love of big, roaring engines.

"He was a fighter," she said. "Everything a wife could want."

Hespen was a public relations manager at Fiat Chrysler Automobiles,although he'd spent years bouncing around the automotive industry, putting in time with Volkswagen, Audi and Ford. When his current coworkers heard the news, they knew they wanted to put together a tribute that would truly honor what Hespen loved.

"We wanted the procession to look like the Woodward Dream Cruise in December, knowing that's what Patrick would have wanted," said Hespen's coworker Wendy Orthman, who put together the tribute at the funeral Tuesday along with Kathy Graham, another coworker. "We began having conversations about how we could get people to bring some cool cars because that was Patrick's favorite thing."

Then Graham had the idea of replacing the 21-gun salute with a 2,100 horsepower salute and she knew just the vehicle to do it with.

Hespen was laid to rest in a procession that featured three 2015 Challenger Hellcat SRTs, which produce a combined 2,121 horsepower. And as Hespen's casket was taken out from the hearse and into St. Aidan Catholic Church in Livonia, he was honored with the sound of those revving engines roaring, along with two dozen other unique and high-power performance and muscle cars brought by auto company workers and reporters from across the industry.

"It's so heartwarming for me," said Gina Hespen, after the funeral service was over. "I know he is with me saying, 'that's proper, that's me.' "

Born with 'oil in his blood'

Hespen was born May 10, 1978. He never had a chance of escaping the pull of the auto industry.

"The kid had oil in his blood," said Julie Martin, a Chrysler PR specialist who knew Hespen back when he was an intern at Volkswagen. "I knew he was going to get hired right away; he knew more about cars than the people on the floor."

Hespen's father Daniel worked at a Volkswagen dealership, so he grew up surrounded by cars. He named his cat Motor. He liked to race junker cars in lemon races. As he grew up, working on automobiles and engines became his main hobby a way to clear his mind, said Drew LaFollette, a friend from college.

"He had an old Jetta he was always playing around with," said LaFollette, who maintained his friendship with Hespen even as they each moved to different parts of the country and took on different jobs. "He had model cars all over his dorm."

Hespen was a kind, big-hearted person who always went out of the way to do something nice for someone else, said LaFollette.

Once, Hespen visited LaFollette in Cleveland. LaFollette was having car trouble, so while he was at the office, Hespen took his car to get repaired.

"When I got to my car at the end of the night, I had a full tank of gas," said LaFollette. "That's the kind of guy he was."

Before going into PR, Hespen served two tours in the Middle East with the Air Force. He was deployed after 9/11 and would later join the National Guard upon his return. He was a RED HORSE, or Rapid Engineer Deployable Heavy Operational Repair Squadron Engineer, the Air Force's heavy-construction units.

He spent time in Ohio and California before meeting and settling down with his wife in Royal Oak. The two met at the Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in California, while he was doing PR for Ford and she was working for one of the automaker's suppliers. They had an instant connection, and when Gina Hespen returned, he called her up to thank her for her hard work.

"I was on the phone with him, wondering 'is he going to ask me out?' she recalled. "I fell in love with him the first time I saw him."

Married, then diagnosed

In August 2011, the couple married, pledging themselves to each other "for better or for worse."

It didn't take long for the "for worse" part to begin. Shortly after they were married, Hespen was diagnosed with bile duct cancer, a rare form of the disease that almost never affects younger individuals. He was told he'd have two years to live.

"We didn't believe it when we heard," said friend Sarah Toycen, a senior marketing specialist with Audi who had worked with Hespen in the past. "He had a stint where he was doing better โ€” 95 percent of the cancer was gone โ€” but he had a spot on his spine that they couldn't operate on."

The cancer spread and he died almost exactly two years after his diagnosis.

At the funeral service Tuesday, at least 300 auto industry workers and journalists from across the country gathered in the church to pay their respects and listen to the words of Monsignor Ronald Browne, who married the Hespens just three years ago.

Browne reminded everyone of Hespen's smile, his kind heart and his contributions in "a short life by some standards, but not an insignificant life; a life that has touched many."

"Patrick fought cancer, a valiant effort, but he's human and the illness overtook him," Browne told his family and friends. "But it didn't overtake his love for you."

lrazzaq@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2127

@laurenarazzaq

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