Reflecting on a rewarding career

by Katy de Vries

JARVIS, Ont. – Growing up, Gerry VanSickle had two dreams. One was being a farmer; the other involved driving a big rig.

For 53 years VanSickle has been living his truck driving dream – all of it accident-free. Now, recently retired from his hauling duties with Kenline Distribution Services, he will have more time to devote to farming on his 22-acre property.

As for the trucking, well you could say VanSickle fell into it.

In 1947, he began working for the Hydro company, but after falling from a hydro pole and injuring himself, he thought it wise to find a job a little closer to the ground.

He landed his first truck-driving job with Jerseyville Mill, driving a straight truck, but yearned to get behind the wheel of a big rig.

The minister at his church, Rev. Dan Filyer, was a good friend and had a relative with a tractor-trailer. He offered to set them up. After a few spins in the big rig, VanSickle knew what he wanted to do.

In 1957, he moved to driving for Liquifuels (later known as Ultramar) hauling furnace oil and fuel throughout the Hamilton area. In 1986, he started hauling petroleum products for Pioneer Petroleum.

During his stint there, he was awarded his 40-year safe driving award. He wasn’t ready to retire, but he did feel slowing down might be in order.

VanSickle then began to haul horses for Chuck Burke Horse Transport to U.S. and Canadian cities.

In 1995, he was hired at Kenline for a temporary two-week period. Those two weeks would turn into eight years and spawn a lasting friendship as well.

“In 1993, I was trying to sell a pick-up truck that I had leased and Ken Dawdy (owner of Kenline) was looking to buy one and when he came to see me, we started talking and Ken offered me a two-week job with his company because he was going on vacation. We’ve been together ever since,” says VanSickle.

Throughout his career, VanSickle has generally preferred to work for smaller, family-run companies.

“In my opinion, it’s a whole lot better working for the smaller trucking companies because you’re definitely not just a number. Everyone knows everybody and we all get along well. I have done a little part-time work for some of the big guys and I didn’t really like it. If you’ve got to work you should be happy with what you’re doing,” says VanSickle.

Ron Dawdy, the son and company partner of Ken and Brenda Dawdy, says working with VanSickle is always a treat.

“He’s such an all around good guy, he really enjoys whatever he does and that rubs off on all of us,” says Dawdy.

“He’s a funny guy, he has a lot of one liners and always keeps us laughing around here.”

VanSickle always went above and beyond the call of duty, adds Dawdy.

He would always take it upon himself to fix any problems that came up when he was on the road, and his motto around the shop, was “Whatever it takes.”

“He’s done a little bit of everything around here,” says Dawdy. “He didn’t only drive for us, but he’s done some dispatch, some maintenance and even now if I need a day off, he’ll come in and relieve me on dispatch, and he’s great at all of it.”

And VanSickle was definitely old school.

“I wouldn’t hesitate to stop and help someone if I could,” says VanSickle.

“Years ago, I would also help out hitchhikers by giving them a lift. It was always really interesting talking to these people, but nowadays, people tend to not want to help, which is sad.”

That old school way of thinking goes beyond trucking and is part of VanSickle’s everyday life.

“I just take one day at a time and try to get along with people and roll with the punches,” he says, “There’s no use getting uptight if you’re in traffic or late for an appointment. You might as well just sit back and roll with it.”

Over the years, VanSickle saw many things in the trucking industry evolve, some things for the better and some for the worse.

“It used to be a lot of fun to drive a truck, but I find there are too many rules and regulations now, it’s just not as much fun anymore,” says VanSickle.

“I don’t really know what can be done, but in my opinion, drivers were doing a better job before all of these rules were brought in.”

The industry has improved greatly, however, in terms of equipment, says VanSickle.

“I’ve driven a whole lot of vehicles over the years and the first winter time job I had, I built up a little snow bank on the seat beside me because the cab was so drafty, so the design and technology advancements have been a very positive aspect to the industry,” he says.

Today, VanSickle is enjoying spending more time with his wife, Suzanne, his four children and six grandchildren.

He also has more time for woodworking and restoring old tractors.

He has his own little shop – one side is devoted to his love of woodworking, mainly birdhouses and wishing wells that he sells. The other side of the shop is dedicated to his restoration plans for old lawn tractors and farm equipment.

He recently restored a Cockshutt 60 and a black and white 1955 Buick, which he hopes he will now have some time to enjoy.

In December, Kenline honoured VanSickle with a few tokens of appreciation and a big retirement party, a particularly gracious gesture in the humble VanSickle’s opinion.

“I was flabbergasted, the drivers all pitched in to send my wife and I to Niagara Falls for a couple of days.

“It was wonderful and they are all wonderful people. I keep saying that I’m not the only truck driver in the world, I just did my best and tried to be happy with everything I did.”

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