Big man, small town

Home is where the heart is, and though Steve Udelhoven roams thousands of miles from here, his heart is back at the family’s Wisconsin homestead – so much so he built a house on the property and drives for a company based less than an hour away.

Steve Udelhoven is winning.

The cards are falling for him now. Money slides across the table. A nickel. A quarter. Two dimes. Four players and a dollar and change in the pot. This game of Dirty Spades is getting interesting. The friendly chatter at, and around, the corner table – the only table – in the Family Depot in Mount Hope, Wis., population 183, turns to a brief moment of silence as the cards are laid down.

On most Friday and Saturday mornings, after almost a week on the road, Udelhoven is here at this general store with friends and, on Saturday, his children – Vicky, 16; Andy, 16; and Joe, 14 – meeting and greeting everyone who comes into the small country town’s morning meeting place. He’s known most of them all his life.

“The rules of the game get changed a lot,” says the easy-going Udelhoven, breaking the silence. “It’s hard to lose more than $5. But I’ve done it.”

Then the game is over. Today everyone either won a little or lost a little, and Udelhoven has farm business to attend to and kin to visit.

Away from the spades table, Udelhoven, 43, has struck it rich. He is America’s Company Equipment Driver of the Year, an award sponsored by the Truckload Carriers Association and Truckers News. But neither Udelhoven nor the people who know him expect the country’s top driving prize to change him.

Udelhoven was born and raised here in this little town amid rolling green dairy and corn country, buried in snow when we visited after his win. He is one of eight children, part of a family working their own dairy farm. Udelhoven left to see the world the day he got out of school, but there was never any doubt he would come back. As a trucker it seems almost destiny that he drives long haul for the family-owned Art Pape Transfer out of nearby Dubuque, Iowa, just an hour’s drive to the south.

Udelhoven hauls a 53-foot dry van loaded with prefabricated windows behind a 2006 Freightliner Columbia with just 40,000 miles on it, loading at EAGLE Window & Door in Dubuque and delivering in the Northeast, mostly Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine, averaging almost 130,000 paid miles a year. Some deliveries are to construction sites, the others to dealerships. His backhaul is normally either bottled water from Maine headed to Baltimore or paper rolls that bring him back through Ohio.

He likes to drive from about the middle of the day to the middle of the night and sleep through the morning hours. He says his driving is steady and unspectacular.

“I drive to get the best mileage I can from my trucks, to get the most out of them without punishing them. We’re governed at 64, and I can select my own routes. I enjoy the freedom to make decisions about where and how I drive. I get to decide where to stop, and I have favorite places to eat. That’s not just part of my personal freedom, that’s part of how I decide to do my overall job.

“I could never work in a factory and eat when the clock says you have to and spend 10 hours in one place doing the same thing.”

He begins his run on Saturday around noon and usually ends the following Thursday. It’s a long run, but Udelhoven has always been a good runner.

“He was always the serious one,” says his sister Karen Potter, who manages a gas station/convenience store in nearby Tennyson, Wis. “He had goals, and he’d set his mind to something and figure out a way to do it, then make sure he got it done. If he says he’ll do something, he does it. Whatever it takes to do it, he’ll do it.

“But he’s still my little brother,” she says, laughing, “no matter how big he gets. I remember when we were kids, we had enough to have our own family baseball team to play at home. Steve was pretty good, but he was mostly a good runner.”

Udelhoven had no complaints about farm life growing up, but he had a goal. “I wanted to see the world. We only had three television channels when I was a kid, and I would see the world on them and that wasn’t enough. I wanted to see it for myself. I wasn’t trying to leave this little town; I wasn’t running away to the big city.”

Udelhoven chose the U.S. Marine Corps as his sightseeing vehicle. Six months before he left school when he turned 18, Udelhoven signed up with the reserves because, he says, “I thought this was a way to make sure I couldn’t change my mind.”

Once in the Corps he was put through his paces and tested to find his niche – diesel mechanic. Coming off the farm where he had learned to fix whatever broke, he wasn’t surprised.

“First place outside the country I went was Central America,” he says. “Spent four months in a tent in a place that was so poor the richest guy in the village owned a few head of cattle and had pigs running through his dirt-floor shack,” Udelhoven says. “It surprised me a little, I guess, but that was what I wanted to see.”

He spent a year at the Marine base on Okinawa in Japan, taking most of his R&R in Korea and the rest of his four-year enlistment stateside, the majority in South Carolina.

“Then I came home. I never really thought about living anywhere else, and I don’t think I ever will,” he says. “I knew from the marines that I could go and live in cities or foreign countries, but I didn’t want to.”

He spent a year in the logging industry handling a log skidder and then began his trucking career with a Minnesota carrier.

“I didn’t like it. I thought I would, but it just wasn’t what I thought it would be,” he says. “I decided the trucking industry wasn’t for me. I hated it. I was going to get out. Go back to logging until something else came up.”

It was then that his fiancée, shortly to be his wife, made a life-changing – and insightful – observation.

“She said, ‘Maybe it isn’t the industry, maybe it’s the company.’ So I decided to give it one more try. And I came to Pape. That was 18 years ago.”

Udelhoven interviewed with company president Loras Pape, the man still at the helm of the company.

“He joked about me not tearing up his equipment because I’d been handling logging equipment, and then he said not to expect a pat on the back every time I did something right because that was just doing my job,” Udelhoven says. “I never had any doubt where I stood with him and still don’t, and believe me, that’s a very, very valuable thing. He’s a guy I’d do anything to help.”

Pape felt the same almost from their first meeting.

“He came in, when was it, 18 years ago and sat across from me and he impressed me,” recalls Pape. “He was green, but he was solid. He’d come from a farm and he knew how to work, and to this day he’s one of the hardest-working drivers I’ve ever employed. He still does more miles than any of my other drivers.” Udelhoven also consistently tops the company’s idle-time and out-of-route miles charts.

“He’s an employer’s dream,” says Pape. “He’ll check everything we do, then double-check it. I’ll give you an example: before he ever leaves, in addition to what a driver has to do, he’ll check the trailer number, then look inside and check the load, then check all the paperwork that we’ve done, things he doesn’t really have to do. He’s so thorough he finds mistakes made by customers or dispatchers. He never complains, he goes where he has to and he’s always on time. Steve always makes sure the job is done right, no shortcuts.”

Udelhoven’s first long hauls were loads of candy wrappers heading out into Pennsylvania (including to Hershey). He found it was easy to be himself and treat customers as friends.

“I used to take fresh cheese from Wisconsin to a lot of customers, but it started to get out of hand so I kind of cut back,” he says. “But I liked the customers I had contact with; it was an interesting part of the job. It didn’t feel like work to have to deal with them.”
Udelhoven switched to hauling windows from Dubuque’s EAGLE Window & Door to customers in the Northeast because that haul gave him more miles and more income.

When his family began to grow, Udelhoven, who is now divorced, kept driving, even thought he knew it would keep him away from home for most of the week. “I really didn’t have a choice. I had to provide for my family, and this job let me do that. And I also knew that working at home in a factory or a store would make me less of a happy person than I am, and that was not going to make me a better father.”

Udelhoven also expected that his young family would one day have dreams of college, and he wanted to make those dreams come true. Today his daughter Vicky is about to head off to college, hopefully at nearby University of Wisconsin-Platteville, and Dad is clearly delighted she will not be far away.

Looking for somewhere to build a house, Udelhoven chose the only place he wanted to live – the family farm. He asked his father, Adolph, to let him buy enough land to build. “Dad said he wouldn’t sell it to me. He said he’d sell 60 or more acres, though, so my little brother Ron and I bought the farm from Dad. And we’re able to work it and not have to sell big chunks of it off because Dad kept the money in it.”

The brothers own 260 acres, Steve 140 and Ron 120. Steve has begun to build his house, adding his living quarters onto the back of a big equipment and storage shed and happily calling his new home “The Barn.” The day will come, he says with absolute certainty, that this will be a really nice, big family home. In the meantime little brother Ron is building a new house on another section a quarter mile down the road.

Beef cattle and some riding horses graze the land, and a renter uses almost 145 acres of it for crops. In between the two houses sits the house they grew up in, still home to their father. It’s much like it was when the family was young, minus some outbuildings that were not needed as the farm wound down and others that were destroyed, one of them hit by lightning.

The land Udelhoven and his brother bought from their father and the deal they have with the renter are based on verbal agreements, to Udelhoven a reminder that the values he learned as a boy in this country have remained solid, still things you can rely on.

Udelhoven clearly enjoys every moment he spends at home with his family. He’s proudest, he says, of his children, and calls his father his best friend.

On weekends off the road, Udelhoven feeds livestock, cuts brush, burns brush piles, makes hay and builds fences with the help of his children and little brother Ron. In the evenings they’ll go “uptown” to Mount Hope as a family for dinner. Mount Hope used to be a bigger place, says Udelhoven, with a drive-in theater and two grocery stores, but they went out of business. The Udelhoven boys took the lumber from one of the defunct grocery stores to add a garage for their father’s car onto the old family home.

Come this summer a small, flat piece of land beside a wandering creek will become a campground, as it has for years. Families and friends will tow in their campers and park them for the summer. The kids will erect tents, and on Friday nights and weekends the campground will become a meeting place.

“I go down and talk with them and have some fun, but I don’t stay down there,” Udelhoven says. “I had enough of tents in the Marine Corps. I have a perfectly good bed back at The Barn, and I intend to use it.”

The Finalists
2006 TCA/Truckers News Company Equipment Driver of the Year Finalists
1st: Steve Udelhoven
Art Pape Transfer
Dubuque, Iowa

2nd: Eugene Hubbard
Regal Service Company
Ripley, N.Y.

3rd: Bruce Pfeffer
Smithway Motor Xpress
Fort Dodge, Iowa

4th: Jean-Charles Huard
Robert Transport
Boucherville, Quebec, Canada

5th: Denis Sansoucy
Robert Transport
Boucherville, Quebec, Canada

The Prizes
$1,000 from Ahern & Associates
CoPilot Truck Laptop Version 9 Solutions from ALK Technologies
$200 from ArvinMeritor
$500 Award Catalog from C.A. Short Company
$200 from DNV Certification
All-expense-paid trip for two to the Grand Ole Opry from Detroit Diesel Corporation
$1,000 Frequent Fueler MoneyCard MasterCard from Flying J
$1,000 U.S. Savings Bond from Great Dane Trailers, Inc.
DA 34100 Purest Air Dryer from Haldex Commercial Vehicle Systems
62120 Dieselmatic NVT Kit with
Cylinder from KBI/Kold Ban International, Ltd.
$1,500 Rewards Card from Love’s Travel Stops
$1,000 from Mack Trucks, Inc.
$1,000 from Peterbilt Motors Company
$100 cash card and duffle bag from Petro Stopping Centers
$500 gift card from Pilot Corporation
$2,000 savings bond from Truckers News, Randall-Reilly Trucking Media Group
$750 from Roadranger – Eaton & Dana Corporations
$500 gift certificate from TravelCenters of America
$500 from TMW Systems
30 TripPak Overnite Envelopes from TripPak Services

Art Pape Transfer
“This is our 50th year,” proclaims company president Loras Pape proudly.

The company started the day Pape’s parents decided to leave the rural life behind and buy a small trucking company in Cascade, Iowa. Today the company, now moved to Dubuque, is by the banks of the Mississippi, next to a retaining pond that is home to a growing colony of bald eagles. The company operates in the eastern two thirds of the country with every kind of trailer excepting reefers, hauling primarily John Deere tractors, steel and building materials on van, flatbed and drop-deck trailers. To date, 20 drivers have joined the company’s Million Mile Safe Driving Club. Udelhoven is one of them and will hit 2 million safe miles this year.

“I was 7 and I remember a livestock trailer coming to our house, and we loaded all of our furniture onto it,” Pape says. “My brother and I talked my dad into letting us ride with the semi driver. I’ve been involved in the trucking business since that day.”

Pape describes himself as a “hands-on” manager who can also do all the jobs – including driving – that he asks his employees to do. He’ll stay involved in a driver’s work until he’s sure the driver can handle it and understands the parameters of the job. Only then will Pape give him an increasing amount of freedom.

But he still crunches numbers, looking for ways to squeeze the most out of every truck. His records show that in addition to running the most miles every year, Steve Udelhoven also runs the most fuel-efficient rig.

“We have 50 trucks. I guess most carriers in business for 50 years would have hundreds by now, but I chose to stay this size,” Pape says. “If we got bigger I think we’d lose something that is very important; we’d stop being a family company where my sons can work and look forward to taking it over and where the people I hire know a job is always here if they work hard. My average employee has been here about 15 years.

“My goal is to make as much money as possible with the trucks I have, and I can do that with good people.”