OAKVILLE, Ont. – Come Sept. 10, Denne Kornechuk will be trading his truck driving clothes for the starched white navy outfit of Popeye the Sailor Man.
Because the 75-year-old System 55 driver intends on parading in the streets of Chester, Ill. as a Popeye lookalike at the annual Popeye Picnic.
“One day I was shaving in the mirror at home and it occurred to me how much I looked like Popeye the Sailor Man. My son was in the Navy at the time and I asked him to send me a sailor hat and since then I’ve mastered the voice and found a wooden pipe and now I’m all set,” said Kornechuk, whose fellow drivers call him Korney across the CB waves.
As a member of the official Popeye club, Kornechuk feels an even stronger connection with the playful character this year because they will both be celebrating a 75th birthday together – all the more reason to head south in September for the Popeye event.
Kornechuk has been driving for 52 years, the last 13 with System 55 of Oakville, Ont., but after turning 75 years-old this coming October he will be looking at retirement, easing back on the driving.
“I’ve learned to tone it down a little bit,” he said, “but I feel very lucky to have gotten this far with excellent health.”
“I’ve got a lot of things to do,” said Kornechuk. “I’ve got people in prison to visit and talk to, hospitals to go to where I can be a friend and drivers at truck stops to talk to and be there for.”
Kornechuk has been a part of Transport for Christ almost since its inception in 1951.
“I’m one of the originals that are still kicking around,” he laughed. “I was at a Billy Graham convention in Toronto years ago, and after I left there I felt I needed more in my life and that’s when I embraced Transport for Christ.”
A few years later, Kornechuk acquired even more in his life – his own “Olive Oyl” so to speak.
He married his “goil” June in 1955 and they stayed married for 34 years until she passed away in 1989.
“June was wonderful, we had a great time together and some day we’ll meet again, and I’m looking forward to the reunion,” Kornechuk said.
They met on roller skates in Montreal, Que., where they both grew up, and it was a storybook meeting, he explains.
“We were always at the roller rink together and I knew when I saw her for the first time that she was really something,” he said. “They always played this one song every night we were there and after a while she would always look for me when that number came on.”
They continued to roller skate throughout their lives together.
“It was never quite the same in the latter years because now there were rollerblades and loud music and flashing lights,” he said sadly. “But there was one place in Oakville that played the old time records and had the traditional roller skating once a week so we used to go there,” he said.
Kornechuk has two children and three grandchildren and says much of his inspiration comes from his family.
“Encouragement helps other people. It’s easy to run people down but it takes a little extra to encourage someone and that’s what my wife always did for me,” he said.
And, in a sense, an additional 26 “infinks” (Popeye’s word for children) have been added to Kornechuk’s family.
“I’m collecting a pension right now and since my own children are settled financially, I decided to look after 26 children from around the world through missionaries at World Vision,” he said. “I think it’s a nice thing to do and I feel good for doing it.”
Thinking about the missionary children reminds Kornechuk of his one wish: “If I could have one wish, it would be to speak every single language so that I could communicate with everyone I meet along the way.”
And he certainly does meet a lot of people in his travels, since starting his driving career while still attending high school in Montreal.
“A guy my family knew in Montreal gave me a job after school and on Saturdays chipping and hauling ice for him. About a week after I started working with him, he asked to see my licence because he had forgotten to ask me before I started, so I told him I left it at home and I would bring it in the following day. So later that day, I went to take my licence test and I brought it in for him the very next day – and he got a good laugh out of that one,” said Kornechuk.
That is how the attitude used to be in the trucking industry, he said, but it just keeps getting worse because there is so much pressure on everyone.
In the old days, drivers would work long, hard hours and respect their equipment and their boss.
Now, even though drivers still work long, hard hours, the rest has gone by the wayside for the most part, Kornechuk lamented.
“I have made a lot of friends in trucking. I just feel sorry for the ways the industry is changing and where we are headed,” he said.
“I’m lucky because I work with a good company and some great people and there is still a personal level there. Many drivers don’t even speak to their manager or dispatcher anymore because it’s all done through technology but I still chat with the guys at the office and I like that, and they still tell me to have a good trip and to drive safely and that makes me feel good.”
It’s a tricky situation, he explained.
The younger generation of drivers is better trained to handle the stressful situations, but it takes experience to be on the roads and know how to keep control when you’re out there alone.
Yet the older guys, who have the experience, aren’t trained the same way nor do they want anything to do with the technological boom.
“I’m a guy that likes to work but not be a leader. I like someone telling me what to do and I’ll do a good job of it, much like my job now. My boss actually asked me one day if I had any brothers or sisters because he wondered if there were any more like me out there,” laughed Kornechuk.
“It’s certainly nice to hear that from your boss.”
As for Kornechuk’s boss, he’s far from Popeye’s arch-rival Bluto, the hairy “heavy” with the glass jaw.
“He’s always there to help us out, he’s such a reliable guy,” said Rob Paterson, operations manager of System 55.
“He is always willing to help other drivers as well and share some of his experiences with them, and of course he is Mr. Entertainer around here too.”
Paterson said he often gets calls from drivers of other companies wondering how “Korney” is doing and whether or not he’s out on the road.
Customers know him by name and all of these people have become like family, he added.
“We hate to see him retire, but yet I know that once he hangs up the keys, we’ll continue to keep in touch with him and we hope he still comes by to visit us,” said Paterson.
“Nowadays, incentives are important. Everyone is trying to find drivers but if you give nothing, how do you expect the drivers to give their all to the company?
“It’s not as important to me at this age, but for the younger generation it is very important,” he said.