PORTLAND – Ernest S. Valente Jr., an accomplished upholsterer and longtime owner of Speed’s Auto Top in Portland, died Monday with his family by his side. He was 81.

Mr. Valente, known by most people as “Speed,” grew up in Portland’s East Deering neighborhood and attended Cheverus and Deering high schools. At age 15, he went to work at an upholstery shop in Portland, Lee’s Auto Top. In 1983, he opened his own business, Speed’s Auto Top, on Warren Avenue in Portland. He was widely known for his upholstery work in antique automobiles. He also specialized in auto upholstery, convertible tops and boat seat cushions.

“He was one of the greatest upholsters here in Portland,” said Matti Aalto, who worked for Valente for the past 12 years. “He has been my mentor. He was the best boss you ever had. Patience was his virtue.”

Mr. Valente was remembered Tuesday as a “master upholsterer” who overcame a career-ending injury and took on many challenging jobs throughout southern Maine.

In 1973, he was reupholstering a couch when a tack came loose and a spring severely injured his eye. Doctors could not repair the damage and his eye was removed. Though he had only one eye, his attention to detail was spot on.

About two years ago, he suffered a stroke and lost roughly 90 percent of his vision in the other eye.

Despite his limitations, he never missed a day of work, said his daughter, Debbie Moran of Portland. She said her father’s shop was a popular gathering place for his friends and nearby business owners. Moran said her father liked to sit around with his friends and drink a Budweiser and talk about the news or sports.

“He was a father figure to many people,” his daughter said. “Some people called him the ‘Mayor of Warren Avenue.’ “

Aalto will continue to operate Speed’s Auto Top.

Mr. Valente was a loving husband to his first wife, Joan M. Loring, who died in 1968. They had four children.

Two years later, he remarried. He and Dorothy Valente, his wife for 43 years, raised three children together.

His children gathered Tuesday afternoon at the Valentes’ home in Portland to share memories of him. They said he was always there for them and accepted people for who they are.

Moran recalled as a teenager, piling into the station wagon to go snowmobiling — wearing bulky winter coats, snow pants and boots.

“It was pretty funny,” she said, chuckling. “There were little fights over who got the window seat, that’s for sure.”

His wife talked about the good times they shared going dancing, traveling, and hosting lobster cookouts for family and friends. She said he was a cancer survivor and lived life to its fullest.

Mr. Valente was admitted to the hospital recently with congestive heart failure and renal failure. His wife said she will miss his constant companionship.

“I know a lot of people that have lost their husbands and they just go on with their lives,” Mrs. Valente said. “They say it’s just very lonely. He’s not coming home. He’s not getting out of my car again. On Saturday, when I do the grocery shopping, there will be no one when I get home. When he was sick all he wanted to do was kiss me. It showed me how much he loved me. I cried practically all the time, especially right there at the end.”

 

Melanie Creamer can be contacted at 791-6361 or at:

mcreamer@pressherald.com