In the beginning

Trucker: Dale Tomb, 72, of Negley, Ohio

Income: $65,000

Awards: Safety awards from Kandel Transport, Markell Insurance, Great West Casualty and John Deere

Family: Wife Sara, two children, five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren

Truck: 1988 Ford L9000

Accident-free: 7 million-plus miles

Dale Tomb remembers his first trip. He maxed out his truck with 28,000 pounds of steel pipe in Pittsburgh and took it to Keystone Plumbing Supply in Somerville, Mass. After catching nearly every red light along old Route 1 from New York’s George Washington Bridge to Boston, he got to Somerville on Thanksgiving and found out the worst part: He had to unload the pipes by hand.

“I was so happy to get rid of that load I don’t remember a thing that happened until I got back,” he says. “I had to do the work. I had a wife and kid.”

That was 1952, and for the past 49 years Tomb has kept on churning out miles. He’s never had an accident. He stopped keeping track of safe miles in the 1980s, when he passed 7 million. The right attitude – namely peace of mind and patience – is the key to safe driving, Tomb says.

Attitude is also what Tomb says separates truckers who drove during his early career from the ones he shares the roads with today. Pressure from trucking companies and shippers has forced truckers to speed up, making the road less friendly.

“Back in my steel hauling days, we usually carried two spares,” he says. “We were a tight-knit group. If another trucker had a problem, you stopped and helped. If he didn’t have a spare, you’d give him one of yours. If he didn’t have a jack, you’d help him jack it up.”

Today’s trucker has a different attitude, Tomb says. “There’s no longer a ‘Let me help you’ attitude. It’s ‘Let me go, let me get out of here, and let me get to where I’m going. Don’t hold me up and, for goodness’ sake, don’t get in my way, or I’ll run over you.'”

By contrast, Tomb’s attitude receives praise from his current carrier.

“Anytime I have a problem and I need it taken care of, he’s there for me,” says John Daniels, president of Kandel Transport. “He understands that sometimes you have to do something for a customer that isn’t really profitable. You just got to do it to keep them happy.”

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Tomb, 72, one of several Kandel drivers past the usual retirement age, has been a good resource for the company, Daniels says. “He’s pretty unique in that he’s seen all kinds of things and been around all facets of this business.” When Kandel is bidding on jobs, Daniels says, “I bounce it off him.”

Tomb has also been a good resource for Overdrive magazine. His trucks have been in the magazine six times, and Tomb’s 1961 Kenworth cabover appeared on the cover of the third issue, December 1961.

Tomb says before the magazine was published, Overdrive founder Mike Parkhurst was asking for pictures of trucks and anything related to trucking. “He’d drop the magazines off at the truck stop in Pittsburgh down where we did business. You could pick one up for 25 cents.” A woman in Tomb’s office sent a picture of the brand new Kenworth. “That was the first truck picture that was ever on the cover of an Overdrive,” he says.

His current truck, a 1988 Ford L9000, has 600,000 miles and features a 3406 Cat and a 13-speed Eaton Roadranger transmission.

Even though he’s had opportunities to manage trucking companies and to expand his own business, Tomb says he always wanted to be independent. “Independence is No. 1,” he says. “You receive as you achieve. You get out of it what you put into it. If you put in the effort – and you put in a lot of effort to survive – if you’re good at it and watch your P’s and Q’s, you can survive pretty well at it.”

It also helps, he says, that “I had a good bodyguard at home to help me.” That bodyguard is his wife, Sara, Tomb’s bookkeeper and business manager. “If I didn’t have an assistant here, I would have given up a long time ago,” he says. “You have to have someone to come home to to survive in this business. Every once in a while the temper flies, but we have a lot of love.”

Even though her husband is still working, Sara insists she’s retired. “I’m done with trucking,” she says. When she proposed they go to Hawaii this summer, she says it took more than three hours to convince her husband to take a vacation. “He’d rather be working,” she says. Sara says Tomb occasionally talks about retiring. “Whatever it takes to keep the lights on,” she jokes. “He’s not doing it for money anymore; he’s doing it because he likes to.”

Tomb’s 51-year marriage is about the only thing older than his driving career, although he did haul vegetables from his farm for five years before he got married.

Sara, who used to ride with her husband, remembers one scary trip in 1972. The Tombs had just sold their truck when they got a load from Ohio to California. Dale went to Akron, bought a new Pete and hauled the load to California. But he didn’t have the fuel permits to get back – they were all on the sold truck.

To complicate matters, in California he picked up a load of “moonlight,” a shipment of figs that he didn’t have the authority to haul. His return trip was through Texas, a state he’d never driven though and had heard horror stories about.

“Texas was run by the railroad commission at that time, and you did not want to get stopped by them. I knew that if I got stopped with this load of figs in Texas, I’d be in deep trouble.”

Tomb stopped in Tucumcari, near New Mexico’s border with Texas. “I went into a truck stop restaurant there and asked an old man, ‘How do I get across Texas?’ He said, ‘Do you have a cowboy hat? Get yourself a good one, not a cheap one.'”

So Tomb bought a Stetson and a bright cowboy shirt. Following the man’s advice, he took off from Tucumcari at 2 a.m. By the time the sun came up, Tomb was at a scale house in Oklahoma.
“There’s a big guy sitting at the scale house sleeping,” Tomb says. “He gets up out of his chair. He’s six foot something with a six shooter and silver bullets. He had a fancy uniform, and I had no permits.”

After a quick inspection the officer knew Tomb didn’t have a permit. “But I had my cowboy hat and shirt on. So he says, ‘Morning. Going to be a pretty day. Have a nice trip.'” Speed got him across Texas, Tomb says, but he believes the hat and shirt got him through Oklahoma.

Nearly three decades later, Tomb still isn’t quite ready to hang up his hat.

“The only reason we’re here today is I’m very stubborn,” Tomb says. “I’m getting to the point where everybody is asking me when I’m going to retire. I probably have the best job I’ve ever had in my life. What do you do about that?”

Advice to new owner-operators: If it isn’t going to be a good load today, it’ll be a good load tomorrow. Haul a bad load; you’ll get a good one later. If you can stick with it and have the patience and not be critical and complain like a lot of drivers do, you’ll be successful. Try to find a good, honest company and get equipment you can afford.

Favorite load: Refrigerated loads. They’re easy to load, and you don’t have to get your hands dirty.

Wife’s biggest complaint: Trucking kept him away from home when the kids were growing up.

Favorite food: Veal Parmesan.

Favorite song: Willie Nelson’s “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain.”

Things I wish I had done differently: I would have been a commercial airline pilot if I could have had access to the education. But there were so many pilots after World War II that it was impossible to break in.