FAMILY: Husband, A.C. Williams; children, Judy and Jeff; grandchildren, Justin, Dustin and Taylor
RIGS: 1998 Freightliner Century; 2004 Volvo 780
DRIVING CAREER: 11 years in trucking
FREIGHT: Refrigerated, hazmat and general
ACCIDENT-FREE: More than 1 million miles
LEASED TO: Marten Transport
When Leona Dittman was growing up in North Dakota, trucking wasn’t considered an appropriate profession for a woman. “It was expected you were going to be a nurse or a teacher,” she says. “Neither of those jobs paid anything then.”
Dittman went to school and enjoyed a 40-year career as a nurse. But a funny thing happened at a time when most people are considering retirement: An old urge took over.
“I wanted to be a truck driver from a young age,” says Dittman, who declines to give her age. In the Dakotas, a young Dittman had a brother-in-law who drove livestock trucks with his wife “back in the day before women drove trucks.”
The dream overshadowed her work as a nurse. “I looked in the mirror, decided I was getting old, gave notice and signed up for truck driving school.”
Dittman went to work for Marten Transport as a company driver fresh out of school. She might never have ended up as an owner-operator if the company hadn’t kept asking her to become a trainer. “They wouldn’t leave me alone,” she says, so she bought a truck instead.
Eleven years later, Dittman is a successful two-truck owner-operator leased to Marten out of her home in Eleva, Wis. She even does some training, showing new drivers the ropes and assisting with orientation.
In another twist on convention, Dittman’s other truck is driven by her husband, A.C. Williams. She has one week’s seniority over him at Marten.
Dittman is extremely focused in her business, planning her trips down to each stop. “When I get dispatched, I know where I’m going to fuel, and I know where I’m going to park,” she says. “I know what I’m going to do every minute of every day unless I get into a blizzard.”
She maps her route by computer, checking fuel prices before she leaves. Marten pays a good fuel surcharge, but Dittman knows how to avoid pumps where the surcharge wouldn’t cover her costs.
“You still have to be careful where you go,” she says. “If the national fuel price goes down, prices probably won’t go down on I-90 and I-94. It stays up in Idaho, Montana and Wisconsin. You’re still paying high prices, but you’re not getting the surcharge.”
She uses the same mechanic for all her maintenance needs and schedules her loads to avoid paying for service and repairs when she’s on the road.
Dittman also keeps a substantial reserve fund to take care of emergencies and to survive spikes in fuel prices. “I wouldn’t think of having less than $10,000 in the bank,” she says. “I get really uptight if it gets under $12,000.” That happened to her a few months ago when fuel went to $3 a gallon and she had to overhaul an engine on her second truck. “It was really scary because it was so low. If I can’t make it at Marten, then no one can.”
She is one of Marten’s safest drivers, joining its Million-Mile Safety Club and its President’s Safety Council. “She just does not have accidents,” says Dan Peterson, Marten’s director of safety. “She also has a willingness and ability to teach new drivers. She takes extra time and tries to pass her knowledge on to them.”
She even taught her husband a few things. “I used to tailgate and go like get-out,” Williams says. “She taught me to back off. Sure enough, I got my million miles. The minute you get in a hurry, you get into trouble.”
“I’ve taught him a lot about safety, about the things men take for granted when they get in the truck and just start driving,” she says. “He’s taught me a lot about how to diagnose when a truck is having a problem and what’s going wrong.”
The two tried driving team, but they quickly burned out and found they liked driving solo better, though they occasionally drive team when needed. When Dittman bought the Volvo, Williams began driving her Freightliner full time, and they haven’t looked back.
“I used to stand on the ground and look up at the truck and say, ‘I’m never going to master this,'” she says. “But it’s a good place to get your head screwed on right. Having the responsibility of never being late with your load, getting to docks that aren’t easy to get into – that sort of thing. In nursing, the patients change, but duties stay the same. With trucking, there’s something new every day, and I never stop learning.”
Dittman no longer gives much thought to her nursing career. “I like trucking. I’ve never gotten tired of it.”
FAVORITE PART OF THE COUNTRY: South Dakota.
FAVORITE COUNTRY SONG: “Waltz Across Texas.”
FAVORITE FOOD: Lobster.
FAVORITE LOAD: Beer.
LOADS I HATE: I don’t mind hauling anything that’s not so heavy that you have to ration out your fuel. I even like hauling hazmat.
PET PEEVE: Truck drivers that talk trash on the CB.
MOTTO: If you don’t like something, don’t let the door hit you on the way out.
DO YOU KNOW an exemplary owner-operator with 15 years of trucking experience and an excellent safety record? Write to Steven Mackay, Overdrive, P.O. Box 3187, Tuscaloosa, AL 35403, or e-mail email@example.com. Honorees are considered for Trucker of the Year.