Spirit of a pioneer
Team drivers at CFI for the past decade, Dora and Butch Colvin have driven 2 million miles without an accident or out-of-service order – or a major fight.
Dora Colvin has been a groundbreaker more than once. She was the first woman CDL holder in her Kansas county in 1965. She was the first woman driver at two trucking
Now, she is the first woman to be named the Company Equipment Driver of the Year. The award is sponsored by the Truckload Carriers Association and Truckers News. She was honored at TCA’s annual convention in Kissimmee, Fla., last month.
Her driving career has been long – 41 years and 2 million accident-free miles – and she has faced discrimination, physical challenges and balancing work and family. But the effervescent Dora wouldn’t call it a hard life. She likes to make the best of things.
“I’ve had four career changes and never had a job I didn’t like,” she says. “If I didn’t enjoy it, I figured it was probably my fault. If you aren’t happy with yourself, you can’t expect anybody or anything to make you happy. Happiness is strictly from within.”
The 64-year-old driver grew up in a remote town in North Dakota, where the snow sometimes reached higher than the tops of the telephone poles. Young Dora identified with famous pioneer/author Laura Ingalls Wilder. Her father died when she was 11, so Colvin helped her mother run the tiny 17-seat family restaurant. That first job put her through college to get her teaching degree.
Dora moved to California and on the way met trucker Gordon Colvin, better known to friends and family as Butch. The pair clicked instantly and got married just months later. Forty-two years later they’re still together, driving team.
“He started driving as a teenager in 1962,” Dora says. “He was born with a steering wheel in his hands. His mother told me when we got married, ‘I’ll give you a word of advice. If you just consider you married a truck, and Butch is the bonus, you’ll never have a moment’s trouble.’”
The Colvins settled in Udall, Kan., and at first Dora taught school while Butch drove truck.
“We always tried to have everything done when Daddy came in,” Dora says. “That was free time. There were no honey-dos, nothing; it was just fun time with the kids. There’s enough strain on the road without worrying about stuff at home.”
In 1965 Dora decided to try for a CDL herself. There was a 5-foot-3-inch height requirement (now eliminated because it’s discriminating), and Dora was 2 inches too short. She didn’t let that stop her – she wore boots.
“Even in her cowboy boots, she has to get up on her toes to get in,” Butch says.
No woman in their county had ever taken the commercial driver’s test. Dora had to wait for the patrolman to stop laughing before he would administer the test.
“They thought it was the funniest thing they ever heard,” she says.
She left with a smile on her face, a baby on her hip and a license in her hand.
“The first truck I drove was exactly like what we’d driven on the farm, except it had this great big thing hanging out behind,” Dora says. “Then the next truck we drove was a 4×4 cabover. In order for me to turn a corner, I literally had to stand up and turn that wheel around. It was a wonderful truck for the time.”
For more than 20 years, Dora taught school or did office work on weekdays. On weekends and in the summers, she drove with or for her husband, father-in-law and other drivers, hauling agricultural products.
In 1972, Dora became the first female driver for Stanley Dilley, a produce company in Wichita, Kan., when the owner wanted to try a husband and wife team. Butch had worked there for years but recently quit for a Trailways job that fell through.
“He said, ‘I’ve got a favor to ask of you,’” Butch says. “I’ll put you to work if you let your wife drive with you. If it doesn’t work out, I won’t hire any man and wife teams.”
Dora and Butch agreed to the arrangement. Meanwhile, they raised their son, daughter and two foster daughters. Their daughter started riding along when she was 6 months old and their son when he was 6 weeks old.
“We didn’t have baby wipes or things like that then either,” Dora says. “You didn’t have telephones. We were among the first that had CBs in our truck. Now I won’t listen to them because they’re so full of trash, but back in the day they were wonderful. They kept you awake and kept you going. If you broke down, there were going to be four trucks there trying to help you.
“You were the cowboy back then. You were the range rider. You were the guy out there in the night by yourself. Used to, going across Montana, the jackrabbits would come out and watch you. Now anywhere you go there’s a string of lights.”
In the ’60s and ’70s, women were scarce on the road. When she started driving, Dora didn’t see another woman driver for two years. Women’s bathrooms were even rarer.
“This was a man’s world, and they didn’t want a woman in it. I was always showing up where nobody expected me,” Dora says. “There were times it was pretty dicey. You were lucky if the gas station had two bathrooms, let alone the showers. The showers back then were gang showers, like the old days of the P.E. rooms. That could’ve been pretty bad! So Butch did a lot of door-guarding for me.”
Back then, police regularly pulled her over just because she was a woman.
“Every highway patrol I saw stopped me. They were just sure I didn’t have a license,” she says. “They came up with some real creative reasons why they stopped me. One time the road leaned to the right on I-35. The truck was sitting on an angle, and he stammered and stuttered and said, ‘See that mudflap? It’s higher than the other.’ It got to where I [only] drove after dark. It was easier than dealing with it.”
In spite of the frequent stops, Dora has made it 41 years without a moving violation or out-of-service order.
“For some reason, we’ve been extremely fortunate,” she says. “The good Lord didn’t give us a guardian angel; he gave us a fleet of ‘em. And we keep ‘em busy!”
Though she has an excellent driving record, Dora had trouble getting respect from many men in the industry, even as recently as 1992. When she wanted to drive with her husband at Wynne Tank Lines, a chemical hauler out of El Dorado, Kan., the safety supervisor was “too chicken to ride with a woman” to give her a road test, Dora says.
“He kept putting it off and putting it off,” she says. “Finally one day I took my crochet work and went up to El Dorado. When he came in, I was sitting at the driver’s table crocheting, and I said, ‘Do you think you can work up the guts to take me out driving?’
“He gave me the worst course. I did it all! I made all these corners and stuff he’d put in there. He said, ‘You should’ve been on a truck a month ago.’ The drivers were just dumbfounded when I showed up.”
These days, she gets plenty of respect from her fellow drivers, especially at Contract Freighters, Inc., where she and Butch have driven for the past 10 years.
“She’s received several awards here at CFI, and at one meeting she wrote a poem for her fellow drivers, just something to lighten their day and boost their spirit,” says Herbert Schmidt, president and CEO of CFI, based in Joplin, Mo. “These big, burly drivers were all sitting there wiping tears from their eyes. That speaks volumes for little Dora. She has them all listening intently to what she has to say. They can tell it’s sincere and from the heart, and they appreciate it.”
Dora started driving full-time when the last of her kids left home 14 years ago.
“Our youngest child and our youngest foster child went to universities at the same time. The dog we had for 18 years died the same week,” she says. “I told the kids I wasn’t going to stay here and listen to KU-K-State football for four years. I told them it’s time for me and your dad to have some time together.”
Still, taking to the road full-time wasn’t an easy decision for Dora.
“The kids knew the minute they were grown up, we were gonna drive together,” Butch says. “But when the time came, she was still sitting there scratching her head and didn’t know if she wanted to go anymore.”
She drove up to North Dakota by herself to spend a couple weeks with her mother, and she used the time to think about what she wanted to do in the next phase of her life.
“I prayed about it and asked the Lord what I should do, and he told me I should go on the road with my husband,” she says. “I was shocked! I didn’t think I was ever going to go on the road again. But it’s been a wonderful decision.”
Going over the road together full-time was a big change, but their marriage has weathered it well, Dora says.
“Who’s got time to fight? Life’s too short,” she says. “We’ve got 42 years invested, and we think we’re going to live to be 90 at least! So the best thing we can do is find ways to compromise and not get upset. I’m gonna put up with him forever, so if I’m gonna get upset over him leaving his socks in the middle in the floor, I’m gonna have a miserable life.”
They divide the labor based on their interests – Dora does the phone and computer work; Butch takes care of the truck.
“She knows how to multi-task; all I know how to do is drive truck and wash windows,” Butch says. “She keeps it up nice inside, and I keep it nice on the outside. We just work together on it. Things like that we do without questioning. That’s our jobs, and we do it.”
Of course, Dora gives Butch more credit than he gives himself. “He is a worker, and he’s not afraid to get in and do what needs to be done,” she says. “He will not allow me to get out and fuel the truck. He doesn’t want me to do anything that gets my hands dirty.”
The couple has spent a decade together at CFI, driving a Kenworth and hauling a dry van. Now they drive a dedicated route hauling hardware from West Memphis, Ark., to Portland, Ore., a run that includes all types of terrain and weather.
“The run we’re on is one of the most beautiful in the system. It can be the most treacherous in the winter, but it’s gorgeous,” Dora says. “Each state, each area has its own kind of beauty. We’ve been in all 48 and most of Canada, and it’s all beautiful.”
Seeing new places and meeting new people are Dora’s favorite things about trucking.
“That’s what’s fun – the people you meet and things you learn, and the different customs you pick up in different areas. We like to get off the beaten path and eat the same food in a different place,” she says, laughing. “Anything we find on the road, when we go to North Dakota to visit my family, I have to feed everybody. They had never eaten biscuits and gravy. I fixed Cajun beans and rice. They go crazy over it.”
One of the new experiences Dora treasures happened in 2002, when she was chosen to test drive the first lower-emissions engines for both Cummins and Caterpillar. She made comparisons and offered recommendations to representatives of CFI and both engine companies.
“That was really a cool thing,” she says. “We met so many interesting people doing that.”
Dora and Butch make time for the people they love at home, too.
“We come home and have a lot of company,” she says. “We have a dining room table that stretches out and seats 16 people, and we fill it. Every Tuesday we get to see our youngest grandkids. That’s the best hour of the week.”
Their oldest grandchild is graduating from high school soon, and they would like to be around more often to see the kids before they grow up. But for now, Dora’s still having fun and still happy where she is.
“This company has been wonderful to us,” she says. “They’ve been so generous with their awards and pats on the back. We’re doing our jobs, but it’s nice to have someone tell us, ‘Hey we appreciate this.’”
After so many years in the industry, Dora still laughs often and has a kind word for everyone.
“She’s a classic example of what one can accomplish with a positive attitude,” Schmidt says. “She’s faced the same weather conditions, the same challenges as anybody out there, but their attitude toward them is different. She turns challenging situations into a blessing.
“The sky’s never falling with Dora. It’s always blue.”
It Takes Two
After 42 years of marriage – most of it driving team – Dora and Butch know how to make a relationship work
It’s hard enough getting along with a spouse when you go to separate jobs every day. But when you’re working together, living together, spending every waking moment together – all in the cab of a truck – it gets even tougher.
Yet Dora Colvin and her husband Butch have made it 42 years, most of that time driving team. They’re still in love and still having fun.
So what’s their secret? Dora and Butch offer the following advice to team-driving spouses:
“If you’re really upset with someone, do something nice for ‘em,” Dora says. “It changes your attitude.”
Early in their marriage, when she got mad at Butch, she sewed him a Western shirt. Sometimes when he’d get home from a driving trip, he’d have several shirts!
“Seeing how happy it made him made me not feel mad anymore.”
Don’t try to change him/her
“The only thing you can change about a man is his socks, and that’s if he lifts his feet!” Dora says.
The same goes for women. The only person you have control over is yourself, she says.
“You can change you and how you feel.”
Praise, don’t preach
“Don’t nag. Tell him what you appreciate about him,” Dora says.
Learn to ignore the little things that bug you, because life is too short to make yourself miserable over socks in the middle of the floor.
Trust your spouse’s abilities
Encourage your spouse and trust him/her to make the right decisions when driving. You are both professionals, and criticism only causes tension.
“I’d show her the way I thought it should be done, and she’d want to do it her own way,” Butch says. “I think the biggest thing is to have patience to let them do it their own way. A lot of guys say, ‘She doesn’t back that thing in there like I want it.’ Give her a chance to do it her way.
“She backs it in all the difficult places. When I’m standing beside her, she can back that thing anywhere!”
Take time apart
It’s important to have a refuge from each other if things get tense.
“He likes to polish on the truck, and if I get a little short-tempered, he knows he can get his bottle of Windex and go outside and shine on the truck,” Dora says.
“When we get home, we go our separate ways,” Butch says. “I go down and see the guys in town, and she stays busy.”
Don’t let the work take over and become the only thing you do or talk about. Look for little ways to show your love for each other.
“To me, she’s still a lady, so I still open doors for her,” Butch says. “It’s still very much a marriage; we work together, but we still have a good time.”
Share in the joys and adventures of the road, and laugh often.
“We laugh a lot,” Dora says. “If you don’t have a sense of humor and can’t laugh at your own stupidity, you’re going to be in a world of hurt.”
As the grand prize winner, Dora will receive the following prizes:
$2,000 U.S. Savings Bond, a personalized jacket and a recognition plaque donated by Truckers News – Randall-Reilly Trucking Media Group
$1,500 Rewards Card donated by Love’s Travel Stops
$1,000 Frequent Fueler Mastercard Debit Card donated by Flying J
$1,000 U.S. Savings Bond donated by Great Dane Trailers, Inc.
$1,000 cash donated by Mack Trucks, Inc.
$1,000 cash donated by Peterbilt Motors Co.
$750 cash donated by Roadranger – Eaton and Dana Corporation
$500 gift card donated by Pilot Corporation
$500 Amazon.com gift card donated by QUALCOMM
$500 TA gift certificate donated by TravelCenters of America
$200 cash donated by ArvinMeritor, Inc.
$200 cash donated by DNV Certification
$200 cash donated by Specialty Risk, Inc.
$100 Petro Cash Card and Petro leather duffle donated by Petro Stopping Centers
A Dieselmatic NVT Kit with Cylinder donated by KBI/Kold Ban International
A Purest Air Dryer from Haldex Commercial Vehicle Systems
40 TripPak Overnight envelopes donated by TripPak Services, Inc.
A Delphi XM Satellite Radio Roady XT, plus XM Radio satellite service for one year donated by XM Satellite Radio Inc. and Delphi