Following his father

Derrell Hearnsberger moves from washing a truck to owning one – and finds success as one of his family’s many truckers.

Derrell Hearnsberger’s first professional job was a natural lead-in to trucking. The Arkadelphia, Ark., native drove between Texas and Michigan during his early 20s, working as a laborer on oil pipelines.

Hearnsberger says the pay, which was good for those days, hooked him. “I could make $50 a week working at home or out on the pipeline I could make $300 a week. So I’d work six months out of the year.”

Hearnsberger’s father was an owner-operator, and by age 24 the son also felt the call of the open highway. Hearnsberger was working as a truck washer of dump trucks and big rigs back in Arkadelphia and says he was intrigued by the money that could be made from driving. “I wanted to drive one of those big trucks going up and down the road,” he says.

When he made the jump, he used both feet. In 1974, he bought a 1971 Freightliner cabover with a 250-hp Cummins. Hearnsberger’s father helped him foot the bill.

He periodically worked with his father but mostly hauled rock, sand and gravel on his own for different companies. Even though it seems difficult for a new driver to start out as an owner-operator, Hearnsberger says he wasn’t intimidated.

“I loved being on my own and making my own decisions. I loved being my own boss. The more work I did, the more I made,” he says. “You can make a very good living being an owner-operator. I just decided that it was what I wanted to do.”

Hearnsberger leased to Fikes Truck Line, hauling steel and lumber across the northern and southern U.S., when he was 37, two decades ago. His younger brother and brother-in-law also are leased to Fikes; his extended family includes other truckers. His wife drives, too.

Hearnsberger met Debbie Rosenbaum at a burger joint in Hope, Ark., in 1977. “It was love at first sight,” he says of the woman he married two years later. They have three children and three grandchildren. Though Debbie is a homemaker, the two still get out on the road together occasionally. “I’m home every weekend, and we spend them together,” he says.

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Debbie adds: “When we decided to have a family, he would come home and be full hands-on with the kids. We were always there together, and we worked together to make this thing work.”

When Hearnsberger gets home, he says, “I love working in the yard and landscaping, mowing the yard and working around the house. Being outside is like freedom from being in a truck all day.”

Hearnsberger and his wife drive team every five or six months, with Debbie staying out on the road up to a week at a time. They’ve brought their children several times. “It was just a vacation to them,” Hearnsberger says.

Debbie loves the rare times she spends with her husband on the road. “He is an excellent driver,” she says. “I feel very comfortable with him, and I can’t say that about many people. He taught me how to drive when I was too young to be in the truck.”

Hearnsberger has been driving the same 1984 Peterbilt 359 with a 400-hp Caterpillar since 1991. He says the keys to being a successful owner-operator are to carefully monitor how money is spent and take good care of equipment.

Safety, though, is Hearnsberger’s top priority. “If you’re not safe, you can’t do this job,” he says. He has 706,000 miles without a chargeable accident, 413,000 without a moving violation, and has received a Fikes safety award every year since 1987. “I’ve been lucky,” he says, attributing his perfect driving record to his devotion to safety. “You don’t just jump in a truck and take off, you have to put safety first.”

Jerry Davis, Fikes vice president of safety and insurance, has known Hearnsberger for 21 years and says he doesn’t know of a better driver. “He’s no doubt one of our safest drivers,” Davis says. “No other drivers compare to him. People like Derrell are a breed of their own. He works smarter and steadier than anyone.”

Hearnsberger also takes care of himself physically, which is vital to trucking success, Davis says. “He eats right, he exercises and he stops and takes naps when he needs to. He is still one of our top owner-operators from a revenue standpoint.”

Hearnsberger, 57, says he will drive as long as he is physically able – but he also hopes his driving will involve his son, Rick, who competes in the International Motor Contest Association. “My life has gone by real quick, and I look forward to the day I retire, when I can just pull my son’s race car,” Hearnsberger says.

Derrell Hearnsberger
1949: Born in Sparkman, Ark.
1969: Worked on petroleum pipelines.
1970-74: Drove a dump truck in Arkansas.
1974: Bought a 1971 Freightliner cabover and hauled aggregates.
1976: Bought a 1973 Peterbilt and hauled aggregates.
1977: Bought a new 1978 Peterbilt and leased to Ligon Specialized Hauling, Madisonville, Ky.
1979: Married Debbie Rosenbaum.
1980: Bought a 1972 Kenworth and hauled aggregates.
1982: Leased to Knoll Farm Products, Stuttgart, Ark.
1987: Leased to Fikes Truck Line, Hope, Ark.
1991: Bought a 1984 Peterbilt 359.
1998: Named a Fikes Roadmaster for Outstanding Service.
2006: Named Fikes Driver of the Year.

Trucker Trivia
ACTING AS THE PIT CREW, Derrell Hearnsberger and his wife, Debbie, spend some weekends helping their son, Rick, an International Motor Contest Association racer. The Hearnsbergers change the tires and perform maintenance to keep the modified car in perfect condition. “It’s a lot of work, but we love it,” Hearnsberger says.

HEARNSBERGER HAS NEVER missed being home on a holiday since he’s worked for Fikes Truck Line. “You work during the week and then are home on weekends and holidays,” he says.