Old School

With 16 drivers encompassing four generations and more than 500 years of trucking experience between them, the Conners of Lock Haven, Pa., were named 2005 Great American Trucking Family.

In some ways, the Conner family of Lock Haven, Pa., mirrors the Amish clans that pepper the landscape around this rural Appalachian community. They are hard-working, self-sufficient and low-key. Also, they have passed along their way of making a living from generation to generation.Unlike the Amish, the Conners haven’t eschewed modern machinery. They have embraced it and mastered it.

With 16 family members – past and present – in the trucking industry, the Conners are a throwback to the way trucking used to be. “All of us learned old school,” says 35-year-old Mike Conner, a fourth-generation owner-operator leased to Linden Bulk of Linden, N.J. “None of us went to truck driving school. We all learned from our fathers and uncles.”

Truckers News has selected the Conners as its 2005 Great American Trucking Family. They will receive their award at the Great American Trucking Show in Dallas, prior to the Mobil Delvac-sponsored Terri Clark concert on Friday, Aug. 26. The show runs from Aug. 25-27.

The Conner family’s trucking tree started with the late Lawson (L.T.) Conner, an owner-operator for 54 years until his death in 1971. Four sons, Arthur, Lebert, Clarence E. and Vernon, followed in his footsteps – all owner-operators with long driving careers.
Vernon died in 1995 after 37 years driving. Lebert (owner-operator, 44 years) retired in 1998 and Arthur (owner-operator, 49 years) in 2001.

That leaves Clarence E. as the sole second-generation trucker still working. At just one month shy of turning 80 years old, he shows no sign of slowing down after 65 years on the road. “If I didn’t drive, I’d be in my grave,” says Clarence E. “I’m going to keep going until the DOT says I can’t.”

He runs locally for Milton Transportation, turning 150- to 300-mile trips daily in his 1989 International powered by a 425-horsepower Caterpillar engine. Clarence E. has been with the company since 1971, hauling mostly roll paper and cardboard. He does all of his own maintenance and most of his own repairs. In early June, he was in the shop installing a new radiator, family members say.

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“I’d like to see him take it easier and not be out there in the winter,” says his son, 54-year-old Bob Conner, who is leased to Quality Carriers of Tampa Bay, Fla. “But I’ve never been afraid to ride with him, even now.”

While L.T. may have started the family down the trucking highway, everyone considers Clarence E. their role model and inspiration. All rely on his advice and expertise as a driver and owner-operator. “Pap’s always telling us to ‘go steady.’ If you have a bad week, don’t try to make it all up the next week,” Mike says.

Among the Conners, these philosophical trucking gems are plentiful and considered part of their success and longevity in the industry. No one takes them to heart as much as Mike, who says his grandfather’s work ethic and dedication to trucking inspired his own career.

“I remember Pap would leave out on Sunday nights when I was very young,” says Mike. “I can still smell the cologne he wore then and the diesel smoke when he pulled away from the house. I knew even then what I wanted to do. I wanted to be like him.”

Mike started out in a 1963 B61 Mack that his dad, Bob, and Gary Swartz (Clarence E.’s son-in-law) had rebuilt. At 18, he became an owner-operator when he bought a 1984 Peterbilt.

Eager to get moving on his driving career, Mike didn’t limit his hauls to intrastate. “I got arrested a couple of times and had my truck impounded for hauling out of state,” Mike says. “I wasn’t going to let that stop me from doing what I loved to do.”

Not all members of the family were pleased when Mike first started driving. His father Bob objected at first. “He begged me not to drive,” Mike says. “He wanted me to go to college and get an education.”

Bob admits he tried to steer his son in a different direction. He knew firsthand the work involved in being a trucker. He started driving in 1976 after briefly trying his hand as a dock worker. “I really didn’t want to drive myself at first,” Bob says. “I saw how many hours my dad worked. But I guess it’s in my genes.”

Although they drive for different companies, Bob and Mike share a trucking niche – they both pull tankers. Mike now owns a 1999 Peterbilt and his dad a 2002 Pete. Another family member, 33-year-old Randy Carson, who is Lebert’s grandson, also pulls tanker. Like Mike, he leased his 2003 Kenworth W900 to Linden.

“It’s great to be a part of this family,” says Carson, who has trucking roots on both sides of his family. “They’re always willing to help you out. There’s not a one of them that I would hesitate to ask for advice.”

Other members of the trucking family include Clarence E.’s daughter and son-in-law, Shirley and Robert Bloom, who have been driving for UPS for 19 years and 36 years, respectively; son, Clarence L. Conner, (owner-operator, 41 years driving); Clarence L. Conner Jr. (owner-operator, 16 years); Rick Shafer, son-in-law of Clarence L. Conner (6 years driving); Dannie Conner, son of Lebert (32 years driving) and Robert Swartz, son of Gary Swartz (owner-operator, 15 years).

Gary Swartz, who is often tapped to help fix tough mechanical problems – Mike calls him an engineering genius – says everyone contributes to the family’s success. “I grew up around this family even before I married Ethel (Clarence E.’s daughter). The whole family has inspired me. I knew I could be a benefit if I could fix trucks.”

Family members’ loyalties extend to their companies, as well. Many have been driving for or leased to their respective companies for decades. “We’ve always been taught that if you switch jobs, you ultimately lose money,” Carson says. “We occasionally change jobs, but we’re not regular job-hoppers. It’s easy to switch gears when things don’t go your way, but it doesn’t always make good business sense.”

Dannie, 48, one of the few Conners who isn’t an owner-operator, adheres to the family philosophy of staying put. He has been hauling U.S. mail for Lucas Trucking on a dedicated route from Williamsport, Pa., to Philadelphia for more than 18 years. He finds it hard to believe his family is being honored with the Great American Trucking Family award for simply doing their jobs.

“Winning this award is a once-in-a-lifetime thing for us,” Dannie says.

Sixty-year-old Clarence L., who has his 1996 Peterbilt and 40-foot dump trailer leased to Samuel J. Lansberry of Woodland, Pa., says it shows following the lead of proven veteran truckers pays off in the long run. “This family is great to be around,” he says. “My dad and uncles never steered me wrong about driving a truck.”

Trucking Then and Now
Clarence E. Conner began his driving career in 1938 when he was just 14 years old and the original hours-of-service rule was still on the drawing board. Back then hard coal mine props were his standard haul. Later on, like his dad and brothers, he transported lumber, which they loaded and stacked themselves.

Gary Swartz, who recently rebuilt a 1969 Kenworth to commemorate his first year as a truck driver, knew the original Conner owner-operator and started driving before L. T.’s death. “That was when truck driving was really different,” he says. “Years ago before the Interstate 80 was built, we ran some nasty roads. We’d run Route 22 in the winter, and sometimes we got up the hill and sometimes we didn’t because of the snow and ice. In the summer, we had to fight the fog.”

Mike Conner relates a tale he grew up hearing about his grandfather putting his son Clarence L. Conner on the running board to squirt ether into the engine to get up Cresson Mountain when the truck was loaded.

At a recent family gathering, family members swap other stories about the good old days. Even if the story appears unrelated at first to trucking, the conversation always comes back to talking shop.

“Everything in this family revolves around trucks and trucking,” Shirley Bloom quips. “You won’t lead a conversation long before that’s what it comes back to.”

No matter from which generation they hail, all the Conners have seen trucking change over the years. While all agree equipment advances and most regulations have been for the better, the jury is still out on the state of the industry as a whole.

“There are still a lot of good drivers out there, but it’s not like it used to be,” says Clarence E. “Some drivers don’t have the pride they used to.”

Mike pulls fewer punches. “I love this job, but I see drivers out there who aren’t truckers. They don’t know how to change a tire or even what kind of engine they have under the hood. You see drivers come in truckstops wearing sweatpants and sandals. That’s not the kind of clothes you should wear working around heavy equipment. Pap always told me you can judge a man by the shoes he wears.”

Randy Carson says the trucking industry is still a great place for a person who loves to make an honest day’s pay. But he too sees things that alarm him, especially in the area of readying new drivers for the road.

“We were all taught by our relatives how to be truckers and run a business,” Carson says. “But look at the truck driving schools. They don’t train drivers like they should. They are simply in the business of getting people their licenses.”

Still, you won’t find many of the family members who would change careers. The trucking lifestyle is too ingrained in them. “I can’t see myself doing anything else,” Mike says.

And using Clarence E.’s career as their example, most probably will keep driving as long as they can. “I probably won’t retire,” the 58-year-old Swartz says. “One day I’ll probably just slow down a little and keep going.”

Conner Trucking Family Tree
First generation
L.T. Conner – O/O 54 years (deceased)

Second generation
Arthur Conner – O/O 49 years (retired)
Lebert Conner – O/O 44 years (retired)
Vernon Conner – O/O 37 years (deceased)
Clarence E. Conner – O/O 65 years (Milton Transportation)

Third generation
Dannie Conner – C/D 32 years (Lucas Trucking)
Gary Swartz – O/O 36 years (Bald Eagle Inc.)
Shirley Bloom C/D 19 years (UPS)
Robert Bloom C/D 36 years (UPS)
Bob Conner – O/O 29 years (Quality Carriers)
Clarence L. Conner – O/O 41 years (Samuel L. Lansberry)

Fourth generation
Mike Conner – O/O 16 years (Linden Bulk)
Robert Swartz – O/O 15 years (Bald Eagle Inc.)
Randy Carson – O/O 15 years (Linden Bulk)
Clarence L. Conner Jr. – O/O 16 years (R&O)
Rick Shaffer – C/D 6 years (MHF Trucking)