Got a secret? Street smarts? Pass it on

My old friend Merv Orr died a couple of months ago. In fact, we all lost a friend. One of the industry’s good guys, Merv was trucking long before there were paved roads in some parts of the country. And long before he was old enough — in 1942, at the age of 12 — he ran away from home in Fort William, Ont., and joined a travelling circus. His job? Training monkeys and driving truck, living every restless boy’s dream.

After a stint in the Great Lakes merchant marine, still a teenager, Merv returned to the Lakehead and went on to drive for Superior Cartage, Smith Transport, and Reimer Express, among others. As far as recently retired Reimer vice-president John Olfert remembers, Merv was that company’s first owner-operator, in about 1954. He had a trusty B-model Mack with the Winnipeg fleet and another couple of trucks piloted by his two brothers.

Those were the glory years, when long-haul trucking was coming into its own, but the work was tough. Many roads weren’t paved, and the trucks had puny little gasoline engines, no heaters to speak of, and brakes that probably smoked as much as the drivers.

In the years following, Merv and his wife Bernice took over a truckstop on the Trans Canada an hour east of Winnipeg. And later still, in the mid-1970s, Merv put his years of experience to work by opening a driving school in Cambridge, Ont., where he trained hundreds of people who went on to establish useful careers in trucking. Eventually, frustrated by the Ontario government’s unwillingness to establish meaningful training standards, and unable to change them despite valiant efforts, he retired to Elliott Lake in Northern Ontario. He left trucking behind him, devoting his energy mostly to woodworking. He’d spend all day in his shop, turning out meticulously crafted cradles and deacon’s benches, some of which my own daughters have enjoyed. It was a peaceful life, and richly deserved, until he first fell ill last fall.

I first met Merv just after I’d taken on the editorship of my first trucking magazine in the late 1970s. I knew right away that we’d be friends.We spent many, many hours together over the course of the next 15 years or so, often as we road-tested new trucks or engines or transmissions. He would explain this or that as we cruised down the highway or poked around under the hood, and I came to understand what trucks were all about. I owe Merv a lot.

This industry isn’t easy on rookie journalists, or experienced ones for that matter. It’s easy to lose credibility — or fail to gain it — if you don’t know when to call an axle a bogey. With Merv’s patient help, I fell happily into trucking’s trenches and came to know its history, its foundations, its essential nature. He taught me to drive, though his sons Jody and Rodney — expert drivers both — had a big hand in that as well. It’s no small tribute to Merv, incidentally, that his sons were chosen as members of the Ontario Trucking Association’s Road Knights team. I know it made Merv immensely proud. I also know Merv would have quickly volunteered for this ambassador duty had the opportunity existed in his day.

In Merv I found what all of us need but not all of us are lucky enough to get: a true mentor. A mentor is part teacher, part guide, part counsellor, someone who is respected and trusted by a younger person to show the way. You can’t simply decide to be a mentor (or to be mentored), because it depends to a large extent on friendship. It’s part of the chemistry that develops between people who are open to it, as Merv and I obviously were.

I’ve had two mentors in my life, the other one being a university English professor whom I still see, though rarely, more than 30 years later. On the surface, you couldn’t imagine two more different people, but the similarities run deep. One of them, a very worldly academic with degrees from Oxford and three novels to his credit. The other, a working guy from the Lakehead who struggled to get through Grade 4 and left it at that. Yet in their separate ways, they were radically similar men, both of them very smart, very strong, and both of them natural teachers.

I’ve been fortunate to call these two men my friends and mentors. They made my life better in all manner of ways, and the lessons I learned are active parts of my day, every day. I don’t know that I’ve played that role for others, but I do know that all of us who have gained some kind of expertise over the years owe it to the younger generations, like a debt in reverse.

So as Merv was for me, I urge you be open to the needs of the “kids” that some of us are too ready to criticize. They’ll get smart faster with our help. And we’ll all be better off.

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