Life and Family

Doing Your Job


Alberta Prize

by Rolf Lockwood

Dave O'Donnell is a veteran of the trucking wars, and if he were actually a solider he'd probably have medals on his chest. As it is, he has a brand new Mack to show for his bravery in battle, his first new truck in 35 years of roaming the highways, mostly northern ones. Quiet, modest, and pretty shy, the 52-year-old lease operator sees it as his reward.
Like many Maritimers, he went west, young man, leaving his native New Brunswick 21 years ago. Nowadays he calls Hinds Creek, Alberta, home and he's been leased to Reimer Bulk Systems out of Fort Saskatchewan for the last nine months or so. He pulls tankers, mostly around north Peace River country and into northern B.C.

Dave's trucking career has seen him do many things, but for the last eight years he's been an owner-operator. Before getting on with Reimer he was independent, finding loads on his own, mostly hauling grain into western feedlots. There were 10 years before that hauling explosives and grinding balls and the like into mines, much of it in northern Ontario. Like we said, he's been around, almost never hauling cherry freight along easy four-laners.

And just two weeks before we met him back in August, Dave took delivery of his very first new truck. It's a shiny white Mack with a 220-in. wheelbase and a 70-in. sleeper, on which he traded a 1995 'Bulldog' that he'd bought used. Power comes from a 460 Mack motor, and it shoves torque through a triple-countershaft Mack 18-speed to 46,000-lb Eaton rears. "It's basically loaded," says Dave with pride in his voice, and that includes small touches like the coffee-maker and microwave that mean he can be pretty independent as far as meals go.

Among the options on his Mack is a very strong 'roo bar' up front. It cost him $2200, but he says there's a saving to be made on insurance when you equip a truck this way. And it only takes one contact with a moose to lose that $2200 and much more besides.
"We never really wanted the payments, but I love it," says a smiling Dave. "It's so much easier to drive. And it's basically got everything that I've ever dreamed of having in a truck."

The "we" in that sentence refers to his wife - and, I'd guess, his best friend - Dorothy. They've been married for 27 years, together for 28. "And I figure we'll be together for a good many more," says Dave. For many of those years after their three children were grown up, they drove team and saw a lot of North America together, loving every minute of it.

"That was a lot of fun," says Dorothy, as modest and unassuming as Dave.
But tragedy struck in 1998, a parent's very worst nightmare, when their daughter was murdered by their son-in-law. As if that horror wasn't enough, just 18 months later one of their two sons drowned in the Peace River. It goes without saying that their lives were changed enormously, not least because they fought to formally adopt their daughter's boy, Austin. With their remaining son more or less on his own at the age of 23, but their adopted grandson just seven, Dorothy found herself a stay-at-home Mom once again.
It's hard to imagine the kind of grief Dave and Dorothy have had to deal with, but Austin's wide smile must be a tonic in itself.

"It's been a hard old struggle," Dave admits, "but we're still trucking. Some people seem to have worse luck than others. But you look next door and you can see somebody else having a worse time. You just have to keep on.

"We were down for a while, but we bounced back. Now we've got a new truck and the future doesn't look quite so bad. It's far from easy, but you can't look to the past. You have to live for the future."

With luck, that future will see Dave and Dorothy driving team once again after young Austin graduates and is able to fend for himself.

"That's what we want for our retirement," says Dave. "We want to go back on the road for the rest of our time. We had a taste of it for a few years before, and we want to do it again."

In the meantime they've got a truck to pay for, and they may not see a whole lot of each other before it's done. Dorothy jokes that before they got the new Mack, she said she'd take a picture of it when they took delivery, but didn't expect to see it again for another photo until 60 months or so had passed - when it was paid for. She really was kidding, but you get the impression that the O'Donnells are pretty hard working folks, so maybe her joke wasn't so far off the mark.

We wish them well.