Deep Thinker

Family: Wife Sharon; son Adam, 14; and three step-grandchildren
Hometown: Philadelphia
Rig: 2000 Freightliner FLD, 430-hp Detroit Series 60
Freight: General, usually for Target
Accident-free: 23 years, 2.4 million miles
Leased to: Dart Transit, Eagan, Minn.

Walter Johnson, 59, of Philadelphia didn’t climb into a truck until he was 34, and he wasn’t looking to get into trucking. “A guy I didn’t know talked me into going into truck driving school,” Johnson says. “But I was meant to be in this business; a lot of things came together to get me where I am today.”

The man who wasn’t interested in trucking is now 2002 Contractor of the Year for Dart Transit’s Eagan, Minn., operating center. Johnson has worked more than 17 years with the carrier.

“Independent contractors like Walt are the backbone of Dart,” says Jim Tammes, Dart safety director. “He has the qualities of a highly valuable professional driver – he is safe, dependable, loyal, and he always has a positive, helpful attitude.”

That’s true of any fleet’s cream of the crop owner-operators, but Johnson additionally has the qualities of a highly motivated learner and individualist.

“I’ve always been a loner, a deep thinker,” Johnson says. “But after reading Socrates and Nietzsche, I think philosophy is a bunch of garbage. You read one, start believing those ideas, then read another that totally negates the other one, and you start believing that. In the end, I believe in God. He is in control.”

Even though he has philosophical ideas, he still has a technical mind. Before trucking, Johnson worked in an electronics plant. When he was younger he would take apart radios, and now he takes apart computers and reads technical manuals in his spare time. Johnson often ponders the scientific explanations of everyday tasks and occurrences. When he thinks of a question while driving, he’ll jot a note on his windshield and look up the answer when he stops. He’s even taking a class to learn advanced mathematics, and he has been known to listen to 300 to 400 audiobooks every year.

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Despite being technologically advanced, Johnson goes against the grain of some modern trends. He doesn’t watch much television or many movies. He hasn’t owned a car in 18 years.

“I like to talk to people when I’m walking, and you don’t get to interact with people when you’re stuck in a car in traffic,” Johnson says. “There’s nothing like walking around the streets of Philly at 2 or 3 in the morning with ice in your shoes,” he says. “I like people, and the people on the streets in the middle of the night – drug dealers and the homeless – are people, too. And they just like being seen as real people since most people don’t even acknowledge they’re there.”

Actually knowing how the laws of physics work gives Johnson some insight into the danger of heavy trucks moving at high speeds. “I usually drive close to the speed limit, so if there’s a bunch of people trying to get past me, I back off and let them pass,” Johnson says. “There’s so much potential danger there, and when things go bad, they go bad fast.”

Johnson is usually out two or three weeks at a time. “There’s no reason to go home if the bills aren’t paid, and trucking’s a lot better than when I started. We know where we are going, and we have cell phones and better equipment,” he says. “But when I’m at home, all of my time goes to my family.”

Two years ago, Johnson testified in Washington, D.C., before the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration on safety issues. He was one of nine Dart contractors to take part in a driver fatigue study in 2000 at Stanford University with sleep expert Dr. William Dement.

“Just being around those really smart people at Stanford made me feel smarter,” Johnson says. “I even have a certificate from Stanford, and Dr. Dement said I was one of his cohorts.”

Whether it’s a famous researcher, his family, professional colleagues or the principles of physics, Johnson says everything boils down to one word – relationships. “It’s up to you how you handle those relationships, and you can always change how you treat people. I changed when my son was born,” he says. “Having him made me grow up to be a man.

“At almost 60, there are things you don’t care about anymore, and most of the things you worry about never happen,” he says. “I have no regrets.”

STRANGEST ROAD EXPERIENCE: On my first trip, I went through a Manhattan tunnel and knocked the alarm even though I could fit. All of a sudden I was surrounded by guns pointed at me.

FAVORITE FOOD: Bread. But white bread is a waste of time; I want the stuff that looks like it has the chunks of grain still in it.

PET PEEVE: Laziness. There’s always something you can do. I’ll keep driving until they kick me out. I don’t believe in retirement.

FAVORITE MUSIC: I listen to everything from classical to jazz to country to blues, even polka, but not hip-hop.

BIGGEST ACCOMPLISHMENT: Raising my 14-year-old son. He is a good, well-adjusted young man.

MOTTO: Find something you believe in and stick to it.

DESCRIPTION OF SELF: Content. When the apostle Paul was in jail, he wrote, “I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am.”