Driver Profile: Mary Dunlop
by Jim Park
A couple of decades ago, her move might have been seen as a mid-life crisis. Today, it's just a natural evolution. Career changes, even big ones, just aren't that uncommon any more.
But back in the 1970s when Mary Dunlop decided to trade a plum position with the federal government for a Kenworth W900, she must have raised a few eyebrows. Then again, where she comes from, women did all sorts of 'untraditional' jobs.
She was born and raised on a farm 30 miles east of Saskatoon during the Depression, so she possesses a strong survival instinct, a special kind of work ethic, and certainly a sense of adventure. In fact, she learned to drive at the tender young age of 11 on a 3-ton farm truck. So slinging chains, tarping, and hopping on and off a trailer aren't that unfamiliar to her.
What makes this story a little out of the ordinary is that Mary Dunlop recently celebrated her 67th birthday.
Still living on a farm, just south of Saskatoon, she's an owner-operator who'll haul anything you can get on a lowboy, and she's not afraid of the dirty work that goes along with it. Mostly she covers Canada but she runs 48 states too, and she figures it's a lot less boring than the job she left more than 20 years ago - as an administrator in a psychiatric hospital for the criminally insane.
Having grown up on a farm and worked with machinery all her life, Dunlop confesses that she was always fascinated with trucks, and she remembers being quite taken by the first tractor-trailers as they gained popularity in agricultural service. Her brother-in-law eventually bought one, and when her husband, Orville, decided to buy his first truck, she says she thought they'd died and gone to heaven.
Orville's first gig as an owner-operator was hauling groceries for Federated Co-op, but after a few years he switched to hauling lime to the uranium mines in northern Saskatchewan. Mary rode along whenever she could, drove occasionally, and soon found herself hooked on the open road. She got her Class 1 licence in 1979.
That was the year they bought a second truck. And then it was both Mary and Orville on the lime run, together but in separate rigs. Two years later they began working for a local John Deere distributor pulling farm machinery out of Iowa. They hauled steel and lumber out of Saskatoon as well, and before long they had more work than the two of them could handle. They eventually grew their business to eight trucks. Often they'd go off in two different directions, Orville dispatching and doing administrative work from his truck while Mary racked up the miles. In 1989, they formed Titan Transport and hired a mechanic and a dispatcher, but the two of them kept on driving.
In 1996, the performance of their modest enterprise had caught the attention of its current owner, Barry Burke, who made them an offer they couldn't refuse. Orville retired from driving to pursue an interest in real estate and antique car restoration, while Mary used some of the proceeds from the sale to buy herself a new ride, another Kenworth. She recently traded in that buggy on a 2000-model W900. Still with Titan, she puts around 12,000 miles a month in her back pocket and has no firm plans to retire.
Looking back on what she sees as her calling, Dunlop doesn't consider herself terribly unique. But she does enjoy talking about her job with people who don't quite understand what it's all about.
"A lot of other women ask me if I think they could do this too, and I always tell them anything's possible if you want it badly enough," she says. "In a way, I like to think I've inspired other women to take a few chances."
If there's any noticeable difference between Mary and any other owner-operator, it's her off-duty activities. "I like to tramp around a mall when I have a bit of time," she says. "I play a little bingo, go into the casinos occasionally. And every now and then, I'll stop and get my hair done." Does she sound like your grandmother?
In 1981 Mary successfully fought a battle with cancer, but to this day she wonders if they got it all. "They gave me a clean bill of health and a different outlook on life," she says. "Now I savor every day as if it might be my last." Even with the hectic schedules, she paces herself so that she has time to enjoy her work, to see the country, and to appreciate her good fortune in being able to do what she loves doing most of all: driving big trucks.
"I really don't believe I'm too old to be doing this," she said. "Although some people might think I am, I hope they'd never be so cruel as to tell me so."
Who'd have that much courage?