2007 Great American Trucking Family: A son's promise

The Sheatlers receive the Great American Trucking Family Award this month in Dallas.

Gary Sheatler roams his property greeting relatives, helping park cars and carting food and chairs to a large tent in his backyard. The gathering is part family reunion and part celebration of the 49-year-old’s dream to honor his late father and other kin who chose trucking as a career.

Gary’s quest began more than four years ago as his late father battled cancer. His dream became reality in May when Truckers News named the Sheatlers of the Bloomsburg, Pa., area the 2007 Great American Trucking Family. The family will receive the award before the Aug. 24 Aaron Tippin concert at the Great American Trucking Show in Dallas.

“My father was lying in that house ill with cancer,” Gary says, pointing toward the family home he now owns on a 30-acre spread. “I brought in a copy of Truckers News that featured one of the winning families. I showed him the magazine and said our family has as much, or more, trucking history.”

Gary’s father, Jesse Sheatler Jr., who died in May 2003, helped his son with the initial research by recounting how the earlier generation of Sheatlers got involved in trucking. “I took notes and learned a lot,” Gary says. “It took me almost four years to get everything together. But I had promised my dad I would do this.”

Now with 583 years of combined trucking history documented and his dream realized, Gary remains humble about the award.

“Winning the award is about pride in the industry that I love,” he says. “There are a lot of deserving families out there, but we’re proud to carry the torch and honor those who paved the way for all of us.”

The Sheatler trucking legacy began in the mid-1930s when brothers John Sheatler, Jesse Sheatler Sr. (Gary’s grandfather) and Albert Sheatler entered the car-hauling business.

Two major wars had an impact on the first-generation drivers. When Russell Sheatler was killed in France during World War II, his brother Albert took a leave from trucking, joined the Army and helped track down Nazis in the final months of the war.

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Albert went back to trucking when he returned home.

“Albert and Russell were one year apart in age and were very close,” Gary says. “Albert felt obliged to join the service to take his brother’s place.”

In the 1950s, two others joined the trucking group – younger brother Charles Sheatler and Joe Krizan, who became friends in the Army during the Korean War. Krizan also served in the Navy during WWII.

After the war, Charles brought Krizan home with him to Pennsylvania. The Chicago native later married the Shealters’ sister Grace.

Krizan, who is the only one of the first-generation drivers still living, was introduced to trucking by Jesse Sr. For more than nine years, he transported cars with the Sheatler brothers, then hauled potato chips for 22 years before retiring in 1987.

“Trucking was a good living,” the 84-year-old Krizan says. “Of course, the equipment wasn’t as good as what they have now. We drove old Dodge trucks with six cylinders. If I’d had the kind of trucks they have now, I might still be driving.”

The second generation of Sheatlers in the trucking industry includes Jesse Jr., Fred Sheatler Sr., Earl Sheatler, Deo Sheatler, Bill Sheatler, (brothers Deo and Bill dropped the “a” from their last name because of continuing problems with getting the wrong mail), Ricky Sheatler and Dennis Sheatler.

Earl still works for Milton Transportation, and Dennis is a terminal manager for Central Transport. Ricky does diagnostics on trucks and test-drives them for Wise Potato Chips. Fred Sr., who primarily hauled hay regionally from 1967 to 1991, is still living but is in a nursing home after having suffered a brain aneurysm.

The second-generation drivers hauled diverse items – everything from produce to mobile homes. “The Sheatlers like to do things their own way,” Deo says, laughing. “They may fuss a little sometimes, but they’ll do it their own way.”

Deo hauled grain, pumpkins and tomatoes for several years, and he still has a few trucks to transport Christmas trees from his farm. “Mostly, I hauled my own stuff,” the 65-year-old says. “Over-the-road wasn’t my cup of tea.”

Deo’s brother Bill, who hauled mobile homes and steel all over the country before retiring in 1995, says trucking has been good to the family. “No matter what kind of trucking we did, most of us just wanted to drive a truck for a living.”

Gary’s mother, Faye Ann Sheatler, relates a story about her husband that reflects the compassion and integrity of this group of drivers. In 1959, Jesse Jr. was hit head-on by another driver near Pittsburgh. She was told this part of the story by another trucker who witnessed the accident. Jesse Jr.’s rig burst into flames on impact and he was trapped.

“Suddenly, a white, blanket-like cloud settled on the truck and the fire went out,” she says the trucker told her. “After helping my husband get out of the truck, the trucker gave him a pocket Bible.”

The man driving the vehicle that hit Jesse Jr. was killed, leaving behind a pregnant wife and two children. Later, when Jesse Jr., who also had a pregnant wife and two children, was approached by an insurance agent with a $3,000 settlement check related to the accident, he refused to take it.

“My husband told the insurance man to give it to the widow,” Faye Ann says. “He told him, ‘I can still work for my family. Give it to her, but don’t tell her that it was from me.'”

The third-generation Sheatlers include Gary, Wayne Sheatler Sr., Fred Sheatler Jr., Dave Sheatler, Matthew Sheatler, Steven Robbins, Gary Robbins, Kurt Albertson and Bradley Rishel Jr.

Gary pulls a reefer for Refrigerated Food Express, Wayne Sr. works for KBR (see “A Call From Iraq”), Fred Jr. hauls for Schneider Dairy, Dave hauls cattle for Spencer Trucking, Matthew hauls for Knorr Trucking and Construction, and Gary and Steven Robbins (Gary’s brothers-in-law) drive for Leggett and Platt.

Rishel, Gary’s cousin on his mother’s side, drove trucks for a few years before becoming a Pennsylvania state trooper. Albertson, who married Gary’s sister, is a diesel mechanic with New Columbia Motors.

Dave, who is the son of Fred Sr., says with so many Sheatlers in the business, there was no doubt what he was going to do for a living. “This is a good family – just a bunch of hard workers,” Dave says. “I knew early on that I wanted to drive a truck. And I’ve never done anything else. I love the freedom of driving a truck.”

The fourth generation of Sheatlers is comprised of Gary’s son, Greg Sheatler, and his stepson Keith Behr, as well as Wayne Sheatler Jr. Greg, like his father, drives for Refrigerated Food Express. Behr drives a wrecker for Minuteman Towing, where he picks up disabled trucks along the highways and works on commercial vehicles. Wayne Jr. pulls a dump trailer for Tully Construction, where he hauls waste materials or “dirty dirt.”

“I used to skip school to go with my dad and help unload in New York City,” says the 27-year-old Wayne Jr. “I knew when I was about 10 years old what I wanted to do. I still love it. It’s a great job because you don’t have someone looking over your shoulder and breathing down your neck. It allows me to make my own check.”

But earning a living on the road often means sacrifices for drivers and their family members at home. “You have to realize they are out there trying to make a living for you,” says Gary’s wife, Christine Sheatler. “They have to miss out on a lot of stuff going on at home. But I’m proud of my husband and kids who drive. My husband has never made us want for anything.”

Christine says while she worries about her husband, kids and brothers who drive – especially when the weather is bad – she understands their passion for trucking. “I’m proud to be a part of this family,” she says. “And I’m as proud as I can be of my husband.”

Faye Ann is also proud of her family, but says her husband Jesse Jr. used to say he didn’t want his kids to get into trucking, because it’s a hard life. Of her five kids, Gary and Wayne Sr. followed in their dad’s footsteps. When Gary was just starting out in trucking, his father followed him. Gary said he did the same thing for his son Greg.

“It’s a great career if you do it right,” Faye Ann says.

Gary looks back at a proud heritage of truckers who “did it right” and continue to do so. “Those early drivers had a great passion for what they were doing,” Gary says. “They paved the way for what we enjoy today.”

His mother reflects back to when Gary was a kid waiting at the window for his dad to come home. “Gary wanted to honor his father. I think it’s great what he has done to make this happen.”

A Call From Iraq
Father and son separated by thousands of miles, but linked by love

I’m interviewing Wayne Sheatler Jr. when his aunt hands him copies of pictures of his father, Wayne Sheatler Sr., recently e-mailed to her. These are the first images he has seen of his dad since Wayne Sr. left in November 2006 to work as a civilian truck driver for Kellogg, Brown and Root in Iraq.

Wayne Jr. is visibly moved by the photos. “I really miss him,” the son says as tears well in his eyes. “We talk every week on the phone, but I miss seeing him.”

A short time later, Gary Sheatler hands me a cell phone and announces his brother, Wayne Sr., is on the line.

It seems a little surreal that as the Sheatlers mill about reminiscing on a cool summer morning, I sit amongst them chatting to another member of the family half a world away in very different circumstances.

“Things are going pretty good,” Wayne Sr. tells me. “It can get exciting sometimes. We’ve got a lot of IEDs [improvised explosive devices] over here, but we have crews that travel in front of us looking for them.”

Wayne Sr. tells me there are certain things he can’t discuss, such as his exact location. Some weeks, he puts in more than 90 hours hauling equipment and supplies for the war effort. Aside from the dangers of the job, Wayne Sr. says the biggest challenge is the weather. “It’s very hot,” he says. “I drink a lot of water.”

Wayne Jr. told me earlier that his dad decided to go to Iraq for a couple of reasons, one being the money. A driver can earn more than $160,000 a year.

“Dad had gone through a divorce from my mom about three years ago and had some debt,” Wayne Jr. says. “I think he also wanted a change in his life. I told him I didn’t want him to go, but I supported him in his decision.”

Wayne Sr. remains positive about his decision to go to the worn-torn country. “I don’t regret it a bit,” he says without hesitation. “I’ve made a lot of good friends here. There are a lot of good people working for KBR.”

The 47-year-old takes a moment to reflect on the things he misses and doesn’t miss in his personal and professional life back in the United States. “Of course I miss my family and my own truck,” Wayne Sr. says.

Being in Iraq afforded Wayne Sr. a special reunion a few months ago – he got the chance to spend some time with his son Andy, who was stationed in the country at the time, before Andy returned to the States. “That was very special to me,” he says. “I got to spend the day with him.”

Being named a member of the Great American Trucking Family is also special to the third-generation Sheatler trucker. “I think it’s great,” Wayne Sr. says. “I do wish I could be there with everyone for that.”

If Wayne Sr. keeps his commitment for one year in Iraq, he’ll miss being with family members when they are presented the award at the Great American Trucking Show in Dallas in August. He hinted there is a chance he might come home early due to some management changes.

Nothing is set in stone. “I may come home for a while, and if I can sell my truck, I may come back to Iraq,” he says.

If Wayne Sr. doesn’t return until November, Wayne Jr. will continue to look forward to the weekly phone call from his father. “I try not to think about the dangers over there,” Wayne Jr. told me before I got on the phone with his father. “We don’t talk about it. We talk about stuff going on at home. We keep it simple.”

Before finishing my chat with Wayne Sr., I wish him well and thank him. After handing the phone back to Gary, I think about asking Wayne Jr. a few follow-up questions to get his reaction. Then I notice Wayne still staring at the pictures of his father. No more questions needed.

First Generation:

  • John Sheatler: Career: 1935-’74 Ace Driver Marrkel Award (deceased)
  • Jesse Sheatler Sr.: Career 1935-’70; 16 Years Safe Driver Award (deceased)
  • Albert Sheatler: Career 1937-’76; Million Mile Driver Award; U.S. Army 1944-’45 WWII (deceased)
  • Charles Sheatler: Career 1954-’90; Million Mile Driver Award; U.S. Army 1950-’53 Korea (deceased)
  • Joe Krizan: Career 1954-’87; Million Mile Driver Award; U.S. Navy 1943-’46 WWII, U.S. Army 1950-’53 Korea

Second Generation:

  • Jesse Sheatler Jr. (Son of Jesse Sheatler Sr.): Career 1957-2002; 32 Year Safe Driver Award; U.S. Army 1954-’57 Japan (deceased)
  • Fred Sheatler Sr. (son of Jesse Sheatler Sr.): Career 1967-’92
  • Earl Sheatler (son of Jesse Sheatler Sr.): Career 1967-present
  • Deo Shetler (cousin to Jesse Jr.): Career 1969-’80
  • Bill Shetler (brother of Deo): Career 1959-’95
  • Ricky Sheatler (son of Charles Sheatler): Career 1973-present
  • Dennis Sheatler (son of John Sheatler): 1973-present
  • Third Generation

    • Gary Sheatler Sr. (son of Jesse Sheatler Jr.): Career 1978-present; Eight Years Driver Award
    • Wayne Sheatler Sr. (son of Jesse Sheatler Jr.): Career 1983-present; U.S. Air Force 1980-’83; Five Years Safe Driving Award
    • Fred Sheatler Jr. (son of Fred Sheatler Sr.): Career 1983-present
    • David Sheatler (son of Fred Sheatler Sr.): Career 1983-present
    • Matthew Sheatler (grandson of Albert Sheatler): Career 2001-present
    • Steven Robbins (brother-in-law of Gary Sheatler Sr.): Career 1985-present; National Guard 1983-’85
    • Gary Robbins (brother-in-law of Gary Sheatler Sr.): Career 1986-present
    • Kurt Albertson (brother-in-law of Gary Sheatler Sr. and Wayne Sheatler Sr.): Career 1992-present

    Fourth Generation:

    • Wayne Sheatler Jr. (son of Wayne Sheatler Sr.): Career 2000-present
    • Greg Sheatler (son of Gary Sheatler Sr.): Started Driving 2004-present
    • Keith Behr (stepson of Gary Sheatler Sr.): 2006-present; U.S. Army 2003-’05