On a Sunday morning last spring, Pastor Derrick Ross delivered a sermon about generosity.
“The Bible says that generosity… will enlarge your world,” Ross told his congregation.
It had been preached inside Celebration Church near Minneapolis often through the years. But no one had any idea just how closely one of their flock had been listening.
“Dennis left more than a gift of money. He truly left his life to us,” Ross said.
Dennis Erickson served as an usher at Celebration Church for 15 years. The church really was his family — he had no spouse, no kids, no brothers or sisters.
Instead, he devoted himself to his church and his collection of cars. And when he died in his sleep in December, Erickson left his historic automobiles – both full-size vintage cars and thousands of models – and his modest, two-story home in Eagan, Minnesota to Celebration Church. And boy, they are celebrating, reports CBS News correspondent Mark Albert.
“So you walk into the house for the first time and what went through your mind?” Albert asked.
“A lot went through my mind. Not much came out of my mouth,” Ross said. “For a guy who talks a lot, it was not often that I’m found at a lack of words. And yet, it was in that moment that I became overwhelmed with his generosity.”
It’s hard not to be overwhelmed, seeing, for the first time, all the model cars, trucks, tractors and buses Dennis collected for six decades, ever since he was 9 years old. His collection includes everything from Lamborghinis to Cadillacs and fire engines.
Some are no bigger than an inch long, but together, they are quite the treasure. There are more than 32,000 — believed to be one of the largest private collections in the world.
The 69-year-old engineer designed cabinets and cases to showcase the collection, which he parked in the living room, bathroom, laundry room, closets, basement, and even in the bedrooms.
For Lisa Lundsdtrom – a member of the church board and the executor of the estate, it was a real revelation.
“He parked them on the bed too. Hundreds,” Lundstrom said. “Awe and wonder was going through my head.”
“You said you experience wonder?” Albert asked. “Why did you choose that word?”
In all, the number of model cars total more than one a day for his entire 69 years alive. And Erickson’s devotion didn’t end at model cars either.
His five preserved classics, including a 1959 Edsel and Henry Ford’s second mechanical marvel — the 1931 Ford Model A — are still in beautiful condition. Erickson would enter these beauties in car shows with his father. For Lisa Lundstrom, her surprise quickly gave way to something else – a feeling of divine responsibility.
“I feel that one day, I will be seeing my mom and dad and Dennis in heaven and I know probably one of the first things I’m going to have to answer to Dennis for is, what happened to all of his cars,” Lundstrom said. “Not just dollar wise or where they went, but how his gift was used to help so many people.”
Since May, Erickson’s gift has raised around $400,000. One family of five put down $14,000 for the Edsel. The Model A fetched $8,000; his Caprice, another $2,500. One baby’s grandmother even chipped in $250 for a peddle car.
Erickson’s house was also sold, so volunteers from the church helped clean all those shelves full of cars, which just this week were transported to an auction house in Cincinnati.
The estate’s price tag, which also includes a newly discovered $48,000 annuity, could total $750,000. It will make it possible to build more classrooms at the church and expand its school.
Pastor Ross said the congregation has doubled in size in the past year. The church is still hoping to break ground by December, a year after Erickson’s death.
“One year later, his impact will be visible from the road,” Ross said.