Road warriorErnest named Minnesota Truck Driver of the Year
WORTHINGTON — January was a memorable month for Dave Ernest. On Jan. 11, he was named 2009 Minnesota Truck Driver of the Year.
By: Beth Rickers, Worthington Daily Globe
WORTHINGTON — January was a memorable month for Dave Ernest.
On Jan. 11, he was named 2009 Minnesota Truck Driver of the Year. Then, a week or so later, he watched as his daughter graduated from the University of Maryland with a degree in animal science.
“This January was one of the best Januarys of my life,” said Dave with a big grin. “Usually, I can’t wait for January to come and go.”
The Driver of the Year banquet took place in the Twin Cities, and the graduation ceremony was, of course, in Maryland — about 1,100 miles apart. But traveling that distance was nothing for Dave. It’s his regular commute.
The Minnesota Truck Driver of the Year actually lives in Baltimore, Md., but works for Smith Trucking, based in Worthington.
“Out of all the drivers who work here, I’d say about half of them don’t live in Minnesota,” Dave explained during a recent interview at the company headquarters. “It’s our terminal, but we’re not here that often.”
First nominated by his employers at Smith Trucking, Dave was given Driver of the Month honors for October 2009.
“I had to fill out this five-page interview about myself that was submitted to the Minnesota Trucking Association,” he remembered. “They told me I had to go to this banquet, and I should have known something was up because Phil and Pat and Mike Smith all went, but that’s just the kind of folks they are. But the reason they went is because I won, and they knew for weeks.
“At first, I was kind of mad” that they knew and didn’t tell, he added, “because I had to get up and give a speech!”
The Minnesota Truck Driver of the Year selection, which has been presented annually since 1973, is based on driving record, job performance and community service. Dave has logged more than 1.5 million accident-free miles in his trucking career.
“I was shocked that I won,” Dave said. “There were guys there who had 14 million miles, but I had the perfect record, 0.0 as far as points or incidents. … But I also know that I could have an accident today; that’s something that could change as I walk out the door.”
Dave attributes his accident-free accomplishment to a cautious attitude when he’s on the road.
“The key to the safety record is the decision I make to not make a bad decision,” he said. “If the weather is bad, I pull over. Why keep pushing it? And that’s what they encourage at Smith. They always want to know, ‘Are you in a safe spot?’”
Trucking has been Dave’s vocation for just 12 years.
“I was born and raised in Baltimore — was married, got divorced,” he detailed. “The kids were in their teens by the time I started.”
Dave previously spent 18 years in a completely different occupation — printing.
“I was a printing supervisor with 200 employees working for me, eight foremen,” he said. “I loved it to death, but the company sold out to the union, and I’m not too fond of unions. So I wanted to try something different, something simple, something that had the freedom to do whatever I want.”
Dave went to work for Star Transport, headquartered in Morton Ill., and was with the company for 10 years.
“They sent me to school,” he said. “I loved the freedom and the peace of mind. I can’t really see me doing anything different.”
While he was working for Star, Dave encountered a Smith driver while loading up in New Jersey.
“The equipment they had was good-looking equipment, and the guy said, ‘This is where we run,’ which was mostly in the west,” Dave explained. “Before, all my runs were mostly east of the Mississippi, and I was looking to move on. He said, ‘Call Mike.’ I thought Mike was a recruiter, and then he ended up being Mike Smith, one of the owners. I went through three interviews with him on the phone before I knew who I was talking to. It impressed me, because he put a lot of time and effort into a driver out of nowhere. Smith was first-class all the way. … I decided this was the place I wanted to be.
“I enjoyed where I was before,” he added, “but here, I feel like I work with them, not for them.”
Living more than 1,000 miles away from Smith headquarters doesn’t pose a problem, Dave explained, because of the nature of the job and because he takes the rig home with him.
“They’ll give me a load to New Jersey, Maryland, someplace out that way, and the truck is my rolling home away from home,” he said, adding that it has all the amenities including a microwave oven and satellite TV. “And some of these truck stops are gorgeous, and if you get fuel, they’ve got free showers.”
During his trucking career, Dave has visited all 48 contiguous states, although there are some trips and stops that he’s enjoyed more than others.
“The city of Boston is the worst for trucking,” he detailed. “It’s such an old city, and it’s built for smaller trucks. The streets are still so crammed, and the people, well, they’re unfriendly. People are pretty rude.”
Technological advances such as global positioning systems (GPS) and cell phones have definitely benefitted truckers, allowing Dave to find his way easily through unfamiliar territory and keep in touch with family and friends.
Sometimes, Dave is sent out on a “dedicated” run, such as hauling pharmaceutical products for a local company, but then there’s the novelty of hauling something new and different on another trip.
“I used to do a lot of vaccine for Intervet, taking it down to their facility in De Soto, Kan., then to another facility in Delaware and then back here again,” Dave said. “I still do that sometimes. … But then I’ll get sent out to the West Coast with something else, and out there we’ll usually pick up produce to haul back. This last time, I was in Modesto (Calif.), where I picked up some chocolate and took it to Scranton, Pa. — one straight shot. You could really smell the chocolate. It was some high quality stuff.”
One of Dave’s more memorable trucking experiences was on Interstate 70 in Ohio.
“There was this major ice storm” that came up suddenly, he recalled. “We couldn’t get off the highway. Everything just came to a dead halt. So I spent the night in the truck in the middle of the interstate, just crawled into my bunk. The next morning, the trooper came knocking on the door and said it was OK to go.”
On average, Dave will put on 2,500 to 3,000 miles per week, taking some extended periods of time in Baltimore to reconnect with his family. Son David is a Honda technician who is engaged to be married in September. Katie, the recent college graduate, hopes to use her degree to go into animal training.
But Dave doesn’t let the grass grow under his feet. Soon enough, he’s back in the truck and on the highway, stopping in Worthington for truck maintenance and to find out where his next load will take him.
“What I enjoy the most is the freedom of making my own decisions,” he reflected. “There’s no boss looking over your shoulder. There’s this self-independence. They could give me a load today and say I have to be in Sacramento by Monday. After that, it’s my decision about how I get there.”
On this particular day, when the temperature is in the teens in Worthington, Dave is hoping his assignment will take him someplace warmer.
“Right now, I have no idea where I’m going — could be Florida, California,” he speculated. “I’ll be happy if the F word comes up — Florida.”
No matter where he’s bound, Dave will take to heart the message that flashes on the Smith Trucking sign as he departs the parking lot in his big rig: “Buckle Up, Be Safe and God Bless.”