Big man, small town

| May 01, 2007

Home is where the heart is, and though Steve Udelhoven roams thousands of miles from here, his heart is back at the family’s Wisconsin homestead – so much so he built a house on the property and drives for a company based less than an hour away.

Steve Udelhoven is winning.

The cards are falling for him now. Money slides across the table. A nickel. A quarter. Two dimes. Four players and a dollar and change in the pot. This game of Dirty Spades is getting interesting. The friendly chatter at, and around, the corner table – the only table – in the Family Depot in Mount Hope, Wis., population 183, turns to a brief moment of silence as the cards are laid down.

On most Friday and Saturday mornings, after almost a week on the road, Udelhoven is here at this general store with friends and, on Saturday, his children – Vicky, 16; Andy, 16; and Joe, 14 – meeting and greeting everyone who comes into the small country town’s morning meeting place. He’s known most of them all his life.

“The rules of the game get changed a lot,” says the easy-going Udelhoven, breaking the silence. “It’s hard to lose more than $5. But I’ve done it.”

Then the game is over. Today everyone either won a little or lost a little, and Udelhoven has farm business to attend to and kin to visit.

Away from the spades table, Udelhoven, 43, has struck it rich. He is America’s Company Equipment Driver of the Year, an award sponsored by the Truckload Carriers Association and Truckers News. But neither Udelhoven nor the people who know him expect the country’s top driving prize to change him.

Udelhoven was born and raised here in this little town amid rolling green dairy and corn country, buried in snow when we visited after his win. He is one of eight children, part of a family working their own dairy farm. Udelhoven left to see the world the day he got out of school, but there was never any doubt he would come back. As a trucker it seems almost destiny that he drives long haul for the family-owned Art Pape Transfer out of nearby Dubuque, Iowa, just an hour’s drive to the south.

Udelhoven hauls a 53-foot dry van loaded with prefabricated windows behind a 2006 Freightliner Columbia with just 40,000 miles on it, loading at EAGLE Window & Door in Dubuque and delivering in the Northeast, mostly Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine, averaging almost 130,000 paid miles a year. Some deliveries are to construction sites, the others to dealerships. His backhaul is normally either bottled water from Maine headed to Baltimore or paper rolls that bring him back through Ohio.

He likes to drive from about the middle of the day to the middle of the night and sleep through the morning hours. He says his driving is steady and unspectacular.

“I drive to get the best mileage I can from my trucks, to get the most out of them without punishing them. We’re governed at 64, and I can select my own routes. I enjoy the freedom to make decisions about where and how I drive. I get to decide where to stop, and I have favorite places to eat. That’s not just part of my personal freedom, that’s part of how I decide to do my overall job.

“I could never work in a factory and eat when the clock says you have to and spend 10 hours in one place doing the same thing.”

He begins his run on Saturday around noon and usually ends the following Thursday. It’s a long run, but Udelhoven has always been a good runner.

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