Trucking giant Tom Stewart has passed. I just found out a few days ago, but evidently he suffered a heart attack after attending a retirement dinner in Milton on June 19. Died with his boots on as they say, found slumped behind the wheel of his pick up. He was 80 years old and one of the surviving “old boys” of trucking, started out driving a dump truck around his hometown of Woodstock, Ont., at the age of 16 in 1950, and later graduated to hauling cars out west, mostly to Alberta and Saskatchewan.
Tom had a long and storied career and leaves behind legions of acquaintances and friends from his trucking days and his expertise as an antique car and truck restorer. His 1909 Model T appeared yearly in the Woodstock Canada Day parade, but his pride and joy was his 1963 Hayes Clipper cabover tractor, equipped with a 318 Detroit and Spicer two-stick 4X4 transmission. The rig had 2 million working miles on it and had been rebuilt twice. He proudly drove it to truck shows around Ontario whenever he could.
Stewart had the Hayes painted up with Arnold Bros colours where he was a broker and owner operator for two decades, delivering farm machinery and heavy equipment across Canada. “It was a good truck, a big truck, made in Canada and I drove it for a long time,” he told me several years ago with a chuckle over coffee at Nick’s Truck Stop on Hwy 2 just east of the 401 and Woodstock.
The truck stop is still there, though under different management, but unfortunately Tom’s not. He lived just down the road from there, on a family farm right next to the railroad tracks. The old farm has seen a lot of changes as Highway 2 is no longer the main artery it once was joining Woodstock to Brantford, hardly used these days as the heavy traffic prefers the 401 or the 403.
My girlfriend and I stopped into the mom and pop truck stop last May and we asked about Tom. The waitress didn’t know him by name but the truckers in the booths sure did. They had some recent stories, one about him getting jacked up in Florida last year when he stopped to help a female whom he thought was in distress. Evidently, she was a “lady of the night” and took his truck which must have made him apoplectic.
“Why don’t you stop in and see him?” one of the baseball hats asked. “I would if he wasn’t so damn cranky,” I replied and the boys nodded. He had an irascible character and wasn’t always the easiest to get along with. I remember he dressed me down for my lack up knowledge of historical trucks when I went out to interview him for Truck News so long ago. Like most truck historians I know, his yard and barn was full of vintage vehicles and he had several projects he was working on.
Tom warmed to me after awhile and we went for lunch and talked about the girlfriends we had had and why they were so darn problematic—we were both single at the time and I think he remained that way until the end, leaving no family behind to the best of my knowledge. He gave me a historical magazine before I left and showed me some of his albums of photos, and talked about the black lab dog he had loved and lost, with a tear welling up in the corner of his eye.
Of course I regret not stopping at his place. It was about a month before he died and I would have dearly liked to connect with him again. Often we only get one chance in this life and we shouldn’t ignore it. Seize the day and keep on trucking is the lesson I suppose.
Tom was a real trucker’s trucker and he cast a long shadow. He’s sorely missed. “Most truck drivers wouldn’t know what it’s like to drive across the prairies in a strong headwind at 35mph,” he told me between bites of sandwich at the truck stop. “Most drivers today wouldn’t know what a headwind is.”
Harry Rudolfs has worked as a dishwasher, apprentice mechanic, editor, trucker, foreign correspondent and taxi driver. He's written hundreds of articles for North American and European journals and newspapers, including features for the Ottawa Citizen, Toronto Life and CBC radio.
With over 30 years experience in the trucking industry he's hauled cars, steel, lumber, chemicals, auto parts and general freight as well as B-trains. He holds an honours BA in creative writing and humanities, summa cum laude. All posts by Harry Rudolfs