TORONTO, Ont. - Heroes, Good Samaritans, hard workers, mechanical wizards, safety advocates and die-hard truck fans - it's tempting to use just one of these labels to describe all the O/Os who've earned the Owner/Operator of the Year title over th...
WINNER’S CIRCLE: (Clockwise from top left) George Blackburn and wife, Esther Winder, Gene Gauthier, Wayne Kelly and Doug Gibson and son, are among those who’ve earned the prestigious O/O of the Year award.
BEHIND EVERY GOOD O/O: Hank Rensink took home the award in 2002.Truck News archives
ALONG CAME DALE: 1996 winner Dale holman is now a fixture on the truck safety and seminar scene. Truck News archives
TORONTO, Ont. – Heroes, Good Samaritans, hard workers, mechanical wizards, safety advocates and die-hard truck fans – it’s tempting to use just one of these labels to describe all the O/Os who’ve earned the Owner/Operator of the Year title over the past 10 years.
But 10 years after Trucks News crowned the very first Canadian Owner/Operator of the Year, what sets these individuals apart from contenders and each other still stands out.
It was 1994 when Paris, Ont.-based Doug Gibson earned the very first award, including the O/O of the Year ring, the plaque, the trip for two and an RESP worth $3,000.
Back then he had 42 years and four million miles of accident-free driving under his belt.
But even today, after officially retiring and selling off his trucks four years ago at 65, the 69-year-old still spends plenty of time behind the wheel hauling on an on-call basis for Pelton Bros. Transport, the same fleet he was hauling for back in ’94.
“It’s a big joke around the yard,” said Gibson recently, just back from a haul to Colorado and back. “They call me up whenever they need me. The guys always say, ‘So you’re back again?'”
In fact it was Douglas Pelton who nominated Gibson for the award.
In 1994, with 42 years of driving and four million miles under his belt, Gibson said the award surprised him.
He was also surprised by the size of the O/O of the Year ring, which he stills wears on special occasions.
“That’s an awful-sized ring,” he said. “When I’m wearing it I can barely fit my hand in my pocket.”
Gibson jokes the ring had to be cut down to size for the next winner, who was the first female O/O of the Year.
“I asked Truck News what they would do with the ring when the lady won the next year – because it was so big. They said they’d cut it down to size for her,” Gibson said.
The ring was about the only thing Esther Winder of Kamloops, B.C. ever needed cut down to size. Having dodged tornadoes, and driven through green lightening and blinding blizzards while hauling gas, PCBs and hazardous waste, the former waitress, only 35 when she won, obviously knew how to handle big things, including her 1995 Freightliner.
She took the award home with 15 years experience hauling through Canada and the U.S., and glowing reviews from Trimac Transportation Services manager John Meek.
“As an owner/operator and businesswoman, Esther has exceeded all levels of our demanding business,” Meek said.
The company itself had already awarded Winder a nine-year service award for her contributions to both company policy and public safety.
“I’ve only just begun,” said Esther, upon winning the award.
In 1996, along came Dale Holman, now a fixture on the truck safety and maintenance seminar scene.
With his years of driving and O/O experience (he had two million miles under his belt and was a founding member of the Ontario Trucking Association’s Road Knights team) and his almost obsessive dedication to safety, especially when it came to maintaining brake systems, Holman was a shoe-in for the award.
The son of a trucker, based in Georgetown, Ont., Holman said the award opened doors for him.
“It certainly gave me a lot of recognition in the company I was working for (he’s now supervising truck and trailer maintenance for FedEx, for whom his fleet also hauls), and it also confirmed that I was on the right track when it came to what I was doing about brake safety.”
Dale and his brother did, and still do run Truck Watch Services Inc. a company specializing in truck brakes, and Dale still owns five trucks contracted to FedEx. He still drives on occasion, but his one true love is understanding how trucks work.
“I drive and it helps me understand what happens when I push down on the pedal,” he said. “But my true love is the mechanics of it.”
Dale said the industry can look forward to a new training program he’s developing for drivers.
In 1997 Wayne Kelley, a.k.a. Charlie Brown, took home the coveted O/O title. Nicknamed for the colour of his first truck, a ’76 Ford Louisville, Kelly carried photos of all his former trucks in his wallet – just like a proud papa. Besides the chrome-laden 9300 International “Viper” he was driving when he won the award, there were the ’76 and ’79 Ford Louisvilles, and the ’89 and ’95 Internationals.
Wayne Kelly’s commitment to family and church, as well as his habit of bringing fistfuls of candies to co-workers and Customs officers at the New Brunswick/Maine border won him renown.
As did his spotless safety record at age 51, and his road rep as a Good Samaritan.
“I’m proud to be a trucker,” said a choked-up Kelly at the awards ceremony at Montreal’s Expocam that year.
John Des Roche, of Baltimore, Ont. won top honours in 1998, thanks in part to 42 years and more than six million miles of accident-free driving.
But it was his good business sense and charitable deeds that won him accolades from Transit Transport of Mississauga’s William MacDonald.
“His dedication to his job, to his industry, to his customers – he’s very obliging no matter what it is,” said MacDonald.
“If it’s not taking food to the food bank, it’s displaying his truck for Child Find.”
Determination was the hallmark of 1999 winner Don MacDonald’s career.
After his son James tipped one of his gravel-hauling trucks onto an embankment, cracking the fender, demolishing the mirror and damaging the door, his father’s response was two-fold:
“He looked at me and asked ‘How do you feel?'” James recalled.
“Ok I guess,” said James, who’d also been knocked in the head by a metal toolbox during the accident.
“Well, go out and get another load,” said MacDonald.
After 41 years on the road and more than five million accident free miles, MacDonald’s only regret was the amount of time he’d spent away from home.
Our 2000 O/O of the Year, Gene Gauthier of Edmonton, a winner at 52, specialized in oversized loads.
One of his biggest operations was hauling a “hexane” tower (250 feet tall and used to make plastics in the petrochemical industry) from Edmonton to Joffre, Alta.
“From the tip of the truck (a 1999 378 Pete Tridrive, powered by a 550-hp Cat, with an 18-speed Eaton Auto Shift, two speed auxiliary and 46,000-lb. Rockwells) to the tip of the trailer we were 311 feet long,” recalled Gauthier.
The gross weight of the rig and the tower was 730,000 lbs.
The height, including the trailer and tower, was 28 feet, and the width was 29 feet.
The load rolled on 128 wheels and the trailer was so heavy it also needed two push trucks.
And it needed so much room four cars were used to clear the lanes of traffic and help plot how to steer corners.
Premay Equipment terminal director Dale Marchand said Gauthier frequently contributed to planning operations.
“We have a certain group of drivers that we have a lot of trust in, and he fits in that category,” Marchand said, adding “he really does set an example.”
Jean Pisarski, of St. Bruno, Que. was the toast of Expocam in Montreal as he collected the prestigious award in 2001.
Born in Belgium and an immigrant to Canada at 17, Pisarksi, a.k.a. Crazy John, studied to be an electrical engineer and operated his own television shop for four decades before getting into the trucking biz in 1983.
A winner as he approached the age of 70, Pisarski’s unusual career path, and the glowing accolades he garnered from management at Transport Mirald of Boucherville, Que., got the attention of award judges.
“He’s a model for all truck drivers to follow,” said Transport Mirald operations manager Stephan Beliveau.
“He’s always very polite with customers and willing to fill in if we’re stuck with a load – even if it’s heading to Jersey.”
Heroism also played a part in Pisarski’s nomination. When a man rolled his car after falling asleep at the wheel in the Catskills, Pisarski pulled him from his vehicle.
“I ripped the door out and pulled him out,” said Pisarski. “No big deal.”
In November 2002, 47-year -old Hank Rensink took home the title, with 31 years on the road and three million accident-free miles.
His business acumen and community work contributed to
“Hank is one of the truly exceptional owner/operators,” said Elvira Vetrano, the Canadian manager for Hank’s fleet – North American Logistics.
As for community work, Hank got up at 5 a.m. every Sunday morning in the winter to help cook breakfast for the occupants of a homeless shelter in his hometown of St. Catharines, Ont.
But Rensink’s claim to fame was not being late to a single delivery in his entire career.
Last but certainly not least came George Blackburn of British Columbia, with 46 years and an estimated 2.5 million miles under his belt.
“Everything comes back to you in the end,” was George’s motto and it held true for him – years after he caught a young man breaking into a friend’s rig and stole computer parts, the same young man came back and helped him break into his own truck when he locked himself out of his cab.
A pregnant woman he rescued and put up in a motel also eventually found him and not only paid him back, but had her husband there to thank him for his help.
“I’ve known George for 22 of the 23 years he has worked for Loomis Courier/DHL,” wrote David Zielke, area service manager for northern B.C.
“Over the years, George has always been an outstanding truck driver with regard to safety, dependability, willingness to go the extra mile and caring for his fellow employees and customers. His involvement with and contributions to non-profit organizations are countless. As the manager of a freight company who knows the value of getting schedules through on time, without accidents and with the customer’s freight intact, I highly value the dedication George has devoted to his profession.”
George was cashing in on his prize trip for two in Greece and Italy when Truck News tried to contact him recently, but we were able to get this much news via e-mail from his wife Ellen:
“Buon Giorno Famiglia e Amici, (Hello family and friends), …George and I are having a lovely time … We’ve been to the waterways of Venice, visited the streets of gold in Florence and watched the tower of Pisa lean. We’ve been to both coasts…seen the Adriatic Sea on one side of Italy and the Tyrrhenian Sea on the other. So far we’ve put on over 4,000 kms. Sounds like a trucker’s holiday doesn’t it?”
Truck News will announce the 2005 O/O of the Year at the Fergus (Ont.) Truck Show in July.