TRUCKER: Donald Nehring, 47, of Southaven, Miss.
FAMILY: Wife, Trina; children, Stacey, 24, Curt, 20, Chris, 17
RIG: 1997 Freightliner Century Class
CAREER: 30 years
FREIGHT: Less than truckload
SAFETY: No chargeable accidents
LEASED TO: FedEx Ground
NET INCOME: $57,000
He’s got a firm handshake, a steady eye, a silver tongue and a list of trucking accomplishments four pages long. He was a 2000-2001 America’s Road Team captain, the 2002 FedEx Ground Mississippi Valley Truck Driving Champion, the 2003 Tennessee Driver of the Year and the 2004 Tennessee State Straight Truck Champion. He’s driven more than 3 million safe miles. But what Donald Nehring wants you to remember about him is his work with children.
“If I died tomorrow, I would go knowing I made a difference in a child’s life and education,” Nehring says.
Nehring is president of Trucker Buddy International, an organization that pairs truckers with classrooms in grades two through eight. Through exchange of mail and sometimes visits, students learn real-world applications of geography, mathematics and other subjects.
As is often the case in these relationships, Nehring has learned a lot, too. Through visits to his two fourth-grade classes – in Wilkinsburg, Pa., and Clarksville, Tenn. – Nehring has seen how different some childhoods are from his own.
“The Wilkinsburg class is an inner-city class, and the things those kids have to see growing up are nothing like what I saw when I was that age,” Nehring says.
Nehring grew up on “the tail end of the Mojave Desert” in Twentynine Palms, Calif., with four older brothers and two sisters. They all wanted to “go somewhere green. I got out of there so quick.” Most of Nehring’s siblings now live near him in Mississippi.
Nehring grew up wanting to be a trucker, like his dad. When he was 15, he started hanging out at truck stops, unloading trailers and learning about maintenance. “Back then, it was World War II, Korea and Vietnam vets who had quit school to fight in the wars but came back with a can-do attitude that I learned,” Nehring says.
Nehring got so excited about trucking he quit school. At 18, he began running flatbed freight for Scroggins and Sons Trucking in California. “I could go up and down the coast, but because of my age I couldn’t haul out of the state,” Nehring says. He never looked back. “This is exactly what I wanted to do, and if you like what you do you’ll never work a day in your life.”
Though he developed an enjoyable career without the benefit of graduating, a conversation with a student inspired him to get his general equivalency diploma. In 1995 Nehring was talking to one of his stepsons from another marriage when the 17-year-old said he didn’t need an education since Nehring was doing well without one. Nehring, off from work with herniated discs in his neck, said he’d finish his education if the boy would finish his. “Then I got my G.E.D., and the boy stayed in school and finished,” he says.
Ellen Voie, Trucker Buddy executive director, isn’t surprised by the story.
“Don brings a passion for the trucking industry and presents a more professional and human side of trucking,” she says. “Don is well spoken, enthusiastic and has a true passion for the kids and the industry as a whole.”
Nehring has driven for FedEx for nine years, the last four as a leased owner-operator. He enjoys his dedicated run twice a week from Memphis, Tenn., which is near his home, to Kansas City, Kan. He manages to sleep in his own bed all but two nights a week.
Nehring is an “outstanding ambassador for trucking and transportation safety,” says Michael Humm, a managing director of safety for FedEx. “It seems like every time I talk to Don he tells me how much he likes being a truck driver.”
FIRST TRUCK: 1966 International cabover.
FAVORITE LOAD: Twin trailers. They have half the accidents of 53-footers.
LEAST FAVORITE LOAD: I like produce the least because it spoils so easily.
STRANGEST OCCURRENCE ON THE ROAD: I was once parked next to a trucker who was hauling dead monkeys that had been packed in dry ice after they had been exposed to nuclear radiation in a testing facility. He was broken down, and the dry ice was not going to last. It was starting to smell.
FAVORITE STATE TO DRIVE IN: Alabama, because it is such pretty landscape.
WORST THING ABOUT BEING A TRUCKER: The first three years, getting used to the road lifestyle and finding your niche.
BEST THING ABOUT BEING A TRUCKER: This is not just about picking up and delivering. This is a service industry. You are servicing your country and taking supplies where they are needed.
BEST VACATION: I haven’t had it yet. I was so busy working that we didn’t get to have a honeymoon, but I have some things planned.
BEST MEMORY: The first time watching the sun set and the moon come up over the desert.
FAVORITE MOVIE: On Golden Pond with Henry Fonda, Jane Fonda and Katharine Hepburn.
FAVORITE TV SHOW: “Hope & Faith.” Kelly Ripa has to be a modern-day Lucille Ball.
FAVORITE FOOD: King crab legs.
LEAST FAVORITE FOODS: Liver, because we had to eat so much growing up.
PET PEEVE: People just trying to speed and get so much done, in trucking or in anything.
MOST EMBARRASSING MOMENT: Nothing comes to mind. Growing up with four brothers, it takes a lot to embarrass me.
IF I HADN’T BEEN A TRUCKER, I WOULD BE: A teacher, probably for elementary school.
HOPES: That the industry gets stable again.
MOTTO: I like to treat everybody the way I like to be treated.