While trucking can be an isolating lifestyle, Steve Bixler is no wallflower in any social setting. He is just as comfortable in front of a group of people as he is behind the wheel of his 1989 Freightliner cabover.
Growing up in the foothills of Pennsylvania’s Appalachian Mountains, he honed his speaking skills as a youngster active in Future Farmers of America. While he has served as a motivational speaker over the years, his favorite topic may be his own extended family of truckers. This includes his late grandfather, Allen Mace; mother, Alverta (Bixler) Peters; brothers, Don Bixler and George Bixler; two uncles; several cousins; and many of his in-laws.
And even though he is the de facto family spokesperson, Steve is humble about his own achievements and quick to give credit where he feels it is due. “My father-in-law, Robert Updegrave Sr., drove a truck for more than 50 years,” Bixler says. “He taught me a lot about being an owner-operator. He taught me a lot about being a truck driver.”
With more than 60 drivers and roots in trucking that go back more than a century, the Bixler-Updegrave family is Truckers News’ 2011 Great American Trucking Family. The family will be presented with the award prior to the Mobil Delvac-sponsored Jamey Johnson concert on Friday, Aug. 26, at the Great American Trucking Show in Dallas.
“My father-in-law was very family-oriented,” Steve says. “Even when he was an owner-operator and was on the road from Sunday to Saturday, he would come home and spend all his time with his wife and kids. He did everything for his family.”
Robert Updegrave Sr. died in 2009 at age 76 from heart problems, but his influence is still evident whenever the family gets together as it did this past Memorial Day weekend at a small park in Valley View, Pa. Inside a barn-turned-pavilion in the park, there is a persistent rumble of voices steeped in influences of the Pennsylvania Dutch dialect, and the family patriarch’s nickname, “Check,” is heard often.
“It may sound kind of weird, but there are even times where I find myself asking him what I should do,” says his 42-year-old son, Scott Updegrave. “When anyone had questions about trucking or just about anything, they turned to my dad.”
This reverence appears to have been earned not for any one aspect of Check’s character, but the sum of the life he lived.
“We didn’t have a whole lot of money, but we had a whole lot of fun,” says youngest son Chris Updegrave, 39, who drove a truck for years and now works as a mechanic for Halliburton. “My dad was very hard working, but he’s hard to describe. You really had to meet him and experience being around him. He was a great influence.”
It is quickly evident the link between the Bixler and Updegrave families runs deeper than the singular connection of Steve and his wife Doris (Updegrave) Bixler. “I actually met Steve because he hung out with my brother Rodger,” Doris says. “They were best friends in high school.”
And it seems natural that Rodger Updegrave, 53, who is an owner-operator, would cut his teeth riding and driving with not only his dad and brothers, but also with the Bixlers’ trucking family. “I used to go along with Don,” Rodger says.
Their hometown’s geographical location — a 3-mile-wide-by-12-mile-long valley surrounded by mountains — also played a factor in tying the families together. It’s a self-sufficient community where coal mining, trucking and farming put almost everyone in the area on the same social and economic ladder. Individual pride in hard work and personal responsibility ranks only slightly below family and community.
Family members say growing up in the valley was ideal because of Check and his wife Marlene’s love of children, as they had seven kids of their own. And the Updegraves’ home was a natural draw for youngsters in the neighborhood.
“Most of the kids recognized the sound of my dad’s truck when he came home,” Doris fondly recalls. “We always had kids at our house. My parents were very youth-oriented.”
Backyard football and volleyball games were regular weekend activities at their home. “My dad loved to spend time with the kids, and he once broke his ribs playing football in the backyard,” Doris says.
To support such a large family, Check had a work ethic as strong as his commitment to family, according to Steve. “At one point, he had three full-time jobs,” he says. These included working not only as a truck driver, but a mechanic and service manager at a local truck stop.
Check’s trucking career started at 16 hauling coal for an uncle before Check entered the Army, where he was assigned to the motor pool. Aside from a brief period when he was on disability after falling, he worked more than a half century as a truck driver with almost half that time as an owner-operator.
“My dad was what you might have called a wildcat trucker back in the day,” says Robert Updegrave Jr., 57, better known by his family as Bobby or Checky. “He would haul anything, anywhere for a price.”
Call it wildcat or outlaw trucking, all the more seasoned drivers in the family have a strong fondness for the “good old days” when there seemed to be a more rebellious spirit within the industry, and more camaraderie among drivers.
“I can still remember what truck drivers were like,” jokes Rodger, who has been driving since 1975, interrupted by a 10-year stint as a mechanic with Cummins Engines.
Don Bixler, 61, who drives for ABF, agrees that trucking has changed a great deal. He started his career in 1968.
“Biggest change is the attitude of some of the truckers on the road,” Don says. “It is not that family-type atmosphere that it was 30 years ago. If you break down, people are more likely to just drive by than to stop and help.
“But the trucks are a thousand times better than it used to be. They make the driving part of the job much easier today.”
Bobby was the first to follow in his father’s footsteps by driving a truck while in high school. He has 43 years on the road and currently hauls oversize loads moving mining rigs.
“Trucking is all I’ve ever known,” he says. “We can’t have a function where trucking doesn’t come up. We’ve all got a lot of great memories.”
Perhaps no one has quite the perspective as 74-year-old Marlene, who raised many kids who are now in the industry and was a dutiful partner, companion and wife to her late husband.
“I’m proud of my family that went into truck, but I still worry about them when they are out there on the road,” she says.
But it’s Check, whose ashes were placed into a customized urn made from a chrome smoke stack and transported in the last truck he owned amid a funeral procession of six semis to his gravesite, whose memory is still center stage.
Asked about being named the Great American Trucking Family, Marlene, almost lost in thought, quietly says, “Trucking was [Check’s] life. He drove a truck in the Army and then when he got out he was always around trucks. He went to his resting place in a truck,” she says. “This award is a great memorial to Check. He would have been as proud as a peacock.”
Owner-Operator Strikes Gold in Sand
Steve Bixler has spent much of his career on the road. And like most owner-operators, he has seen his share of ups and downs.
Recently, however, he started a new trucking gig with a rare, lucrative upside. Imagine driving a truck and grossing six figures per year while logging only a few hundred miles per week. How about more than $5,000 per week for hauling a little sand?
Although he had been on the job only a few weeks when we talked in late May, Steve may have hit on a proverbial goldmine. To be more exact, it’s a gas mine.
Steve hauls sand for several subcontractors in northeastern Pennsylvania for hydraulic fracturing operations that use a mixture of sand and water to force gas from drilled wells.
“I pull a pneumatic trailer,” Steve says. “My cousin got me into this job. It pays so well because they can’t get enough trucks. One of them deals where because of the expense of the process, the company will pay whatever they have to to make sure they have trucks there when they have to.”
Steve’s wife, Doris, who has her learner’s permit for a Class A CDL, often teams with him. Both are excited about the future of this niche trucking opportunity.
“The industry is growing so fast,” he says. “They just started drilling these wells a year and a half ago. They are drilling tens of thousands of these mines. A lot of news reports say this is the next gold rush. I’m working for three different companies that serve many, many gas companies. Everything is contracted out. You might be working for this company this week and another company next week.”
Family Members Go the Extra Mile for Their Community
• Check and wife Marlene were in charge of the Youth Fellowship Program for three years in their church, plus they hosted many backyard activities (picnics, volleyball games, etc.) for local youth.
Their children and in-laws:
• Bobby Updegrave and his wife, Barbara, were foster parents for 13 years, and adopted two of the foster children. Bobby also was a local fire company member. Their daughter, Jody, and her husband, Chad Richards, also are involved with the local fire companies in their community.
• Charlotte and her husband, Robin Spicher, are involved heavily with their church and were active with the Cub Scouts for seven years. Robin was a youth baseball coach for about 12 years. He is vice president of the Hegins Fire Company. Their sons, Terry, Mathew and Mackenzie, are all members of Hegins, with Mathew serving as assistant fire chief. Mathew also runs with the rescue truck as a certified emergency responder.
• Rodger Updegrave was a baseball coach for about 12 years, and he also was a fire company member for several years. He and his wife, Wanda, also worked with the Make-A-Wish program. Their son-in-law, Les Rice, was also involved with the fire company briefly.
• Doris and her husband, Steve Bixler, coached youth bowling for several years. Steve also coached baseball for 16 years. Doris served as concession-stand worker and as team treasurer. Steve and Doris were members of the Civil Air Patrol for three years. Their son Steve Bixler Jr. has participated in several community service projects, and son Michael Bixler was a member of the Civil Air Patrol for three years.
• Scott Updegrave is a member of Hegins and a former member of the Hegins Fire Police. His wife, Amy, is a trained Hospice volunteer.
• Robin and her husband, Wayne Klinger, are active in their church. Robin also worked with the Girls Scouts for three years.
• ChrisUpdegrave and his wife, Wendy, both coached Pee Wee baseball.
• Don Bixler is a member of the Masons and helps organize many fundraisers to support local groups.
60-plus drivers, 1,200-plus years
The Bixler-Updegrave family has more than 60 relatives past and present who have worked in the transportation industry, most as truck drivers or mechanics. Together they have more than 1,200 years of trucking experience, according to Steve Bixler.
James F. Mace started delivering with a horse and buggy around 1906.
Chester Mace. Drove a chain-drive Mack
Kermit Mace. Allen Mace. Roger Romberger. Alverta Bixler. Don Bixler. George Bixler. Steve Bixler. Doris Bixler. Jim Lyons. Russell Mace. Mearl Mace. Irvin Mace. Carol Mace. Earl Mace. David Mace. Michael Mace. William Mace. Terry Mace. Carl Mace. Raymond Straub. James B. Mace. Russell Kerstetter. Dennis Mace. Suzanne Tallman. Guy Mace. George Mace. Fred Mace. Willard Wiest. Willard Wiest Jr. Fred Wiest. Wayne Wiest. Calvin Wiest. Marvin Wiest. Mark Wiest. Walter Wiest. John Yorty. Ralph Bixler.
Robert R. Updegrave started delivering with a horse and buggy in the mid-1800s.
Homer Updegrave. John Updegrave. Lloyd Bollinger. Lloyd Bollinger Jr. Joseph Buffington. Robert Buffington. John Wolfgang. Gene Wolfgang. Barry Poticher. George Schaffer. Junior Witmer. Donald Ferree.
Boyce Warner. Ward Reed. Brian Michaels. Robert Updegrave Sr. Robert Updegrave Jr. Robin Spicher. Terry Spicher. Mathew Spicher. Rodger Updegrave. Les Rice. Scott Updegrave. Chris Updegrave.