Charlie and Co.

Navajo Express’ Charlie Hamilton rides impressive safety record to Company Driver of the Year title

After a quick introduction of family members, including his wife, Janice, we head just up the street to Sadie’s of New Mexico, a local favorite where servers ask “red” or “green” when customers make their selection from New Mexican-style entrees.

Left: Charlie Hamilton, a driver/trainer for Navajo Express has more than 4 million accident-free miles. In addition to competing at truck driving championships at both the state and national levels, he has driver of the month awards from motor carrier associations in Colorado and New Mexico. For the past nine years, his dog Angelo has been his trusted sidekick.

“The green peppers are hotter,” Charlie says. I took this as more of a recommendation than a simple fact. After all, this is Charlie’s town, especially the east side of Albuquerque. This is where he’s spent the majority of his 53 years. He and Janice live a scarce six miles from the house where he grew up — just a stone’s throw south of the original Route 66.

Charlie was right about the chili peppers — good heat, good flavor. He has a quiet confidence about him and possesses the ability to guide a person where he needs to go without actually demanding it. Whether it’s a natural trait or learned from his years on the road, it’s one of the many characteristics that has helped establish him as a leader in his profession.

With a proven track record for safety — more than 4 million accident-free miles over a 30-year career — Truckers News selected the Navajo Express driver/trainer as its 2011 Company Driver of the Year. Charlie and Janice will receive a free trip to the Great American Trucking Show in Dallas, Aug. 25-27.

Charlie admits being spotlighted with the honor makes him a little apprehensive. “I’m a little nervous,” he says, laughing. Humble to a fault. Even though he has represented his company and the state of Colorado (where Navajo is headquartered) in the 2001 National Truck Driving Championships, Charlie jokes that there are a lot of truckers out there with a wealth of talents, but he doesn’t have one. “I live a pretty uneventful life. I see a lot of drivers who can do a lot of things. But with me, the only instrument I can play is the radio,” Charlie quips. “Maybe you could say I’m a frustrated athlete who drives a truck.”

Charlie won first place in the sleeper-berth category at the 2001 Colorado Truck Driving Championships and represented Navajo Express in the nationals. At Westway Express, he won first place at the New Mexico Driving Championships in 1996, third place in 1997 and finished second to his brother Jay Hamilton in 1998.

The inside of his cab reflects his love of athletics. Almost always with him are his golf clubs, a basketball, a baseball and glove. He doesn’t pass up a chance to take in a golf course on the road when he has time, though he says that has become less frequent because hours-of-service regulations combined with electronic onboard recorders make slipping away to visit the links for a few hours more difficult.

“Still, I try to stay active,” Charlie says. “If I shut down somewhere there is a basketball court, I’ll get out the ball and shoot.” He also keeps the softball and glove ready in case he runs into his brother, Jay Hamilton, who is an owner-operator. “We don’t see each other a lot on the road, but when we do, we’ll throw the baseball around on a back lot if we have time,” Charlie says.

Charlie, who grew up playing sports competitively, finds them to be a great stress reliever from the pressures of driving a truck. And age hasn’t dampened his competitive nature. When playing regularly, he boasts a 12 handicap on the golf course. “I haven’t played much in the last couple of years, so I’m probably at a 15 handicap,” he says with a hint of frustration that he has let his scorecards slip slightly.

The next morning, we took to one of his favorite home courses — Los Altos Golf Course. “Growing up, I used to live right over there,” Charlie says, pointing across Interstate 40, which runs adjacent to the course. “I would walk and cross under the drainage tunnel to play here.”

Charlie’s laid-back personality can mask his competitive nature. He always carries his golf clubs in the truck with him, and often can be found at the Los Altos Golf Course in his hometown of Albuquerque when not working.

He plays with restraint and keeps his emotions in check even after a wayward tee shot. “I used to throw my clubs when I was younger,” Charlie says, laughing. “I don’t do that now.”

It’s this kind of discipline that makes Charlie a top-notch driver and trainer. “Charlie plays to people’s strengths and works with the skills they have,” says Paul Harris, vice president of operations at Navajo. “He is more of a teacher than a trainer. Most of the trainees he produces are superior to other new hires.”

Starting out

Charlie’s roots in trucking begin with his maternal grandfather, Elmer Henson, and his dad, Dan Hamilton. Dan was a regional driver hauling ice cream and milk for a dairy. Henson owned a farm, and in addition to transporting his own goods, he also delivered propane for 20 years. At one point, the in-laws worked for the same company driving a milk tanker.

“I used to go with my dad as much as I could in the summer months between Little League and that kind of stuff,” Charlie says.

Dan taught his young son the basics of driving, but was forced to retire at age 40 due to a heart condition that left him in a wheelchair for the remainder of his life. “I was only 13 years old, but the basics were there,” Charlie says. “He showed us how things worked.”

Charlie’s dad, Dan Hamilton, and maternal grandfather, Elmer Henson, worked for the same company pulling a tanker truck in early 1958.

Charlie went to technical school to become a welder and was hired at Don J. Cummings Co. In addition to his welding duties, he began hauling produce to the East Coast and the company’s building materials and equipment on the backhaul.

“My first trip out by myself was to New York City … Queens. It was nerve-wracking,” Charlie says, laughing at the naiveté of a 22-year-old wanting to prove his worth. “All I had was a Rand McNally foldout map of New York City and a piece of paper from a sales rep who had it marked out for me. It was overwhelming.”

After a decade of pulling double duty, Charlie landed a job at TWX Transportation and from there to Westway Express, where he hauled, among other things, swinging meat.

Charlie and Janice have been married 13 years and have four children and one grandson. Ironically, they met for the first time at their 20th high school reunion. They are shown with their grandson, Diego Garcia.

“Swinging meat was a whole new game,” Charlie says. “The shorter stuff like lamb and pigs was a lot like driving a tanker truck of liquid without the ballast. But the older drivers helped me a lot with good advice.”

Into a groove

As we make our way around the course, Charlie’s golf game begins to settle into consistency as the earlier rust of irregular play begins to fade. It’s the kind of consistency that has helped him find a comfortable niche at Navajo Express, where he has been for 12 years.

“I don’t like looking for jobs,” Charlie jokes. “My requirements for a trucking company are No. 1, get me home on time. And No. 2, keep me busy. Navajo had a reputation of keeping guys busy.”

Charlie drives a 2009 T660 at the Denver-based company, and the fleet is comprised primarily of Kenworths. He is fine with whatever brand of truck the company provides as long as his longtime driving companion, Angelo, is allowed to ride along. Angelo is the dog his father-in-law gave him several years ago after trading a load of wood for the canine. Wherever Charlie goes, so does Angelo.

Together they have built a solid reputation for dependability and, most of all, loyalty. In 2009, Charlie was one of 12 finalists for the Truckload Carriers Association’s Company Driver of the Year award.

“Charlie is a model driver,” Harris boasts. “I wish I could clone him 800 times. I wish every driver was as conscientious as him.”

Charlie’s secret to a successful career in trucking is simple — safety first. “I try to practice safe driving habits,” he says. “It’s about managing your space. Managing your space while you’re backing, while you’re parking and while you’re driving. You’ve got to stay focused.”

Family first

After packing up the clubs, we head to Charlie’s home. He lives in a Tijeras Canyon neighborhood at the foothills of the Sandia Mountains, where he is surrounded by relatives of his wife, Janice. Her family’s roots go back generations on the same plot of ground.

“It took a bit of getting used to for me,” Charlie says of living among in-laws. “Growing up, there was just four of us. But now I can’t imagine not having my wife’s family around me. It gives me peace of mind knowing that I have so many people here to help with anything that comes up when I’m gone.”

Both Charlie and Janice were previously married and divorced. Ironically, they met each other for the first time at their 20th high school reunion. “Even though we went to the same high school and graduated in the same [1976] class, we didn’t know each other,” Janice says. “A mutual friend introduced us.”

They have been married 13 years and between them have four grown children, Lauren Hamilton, Jaimie Hamilton, Annette Garcia and Celeste Nuanez, and one grandson, Diego Garcia.

Charlie almost always makes it home for important family events like birthdays, anniversaries and weddings. “That’s important to me,” he says. “My family comes first.”

Janice, who works for a veteran’s hospital in Albuquerque, is looking forward to the day when she and Charlie both retire so they can spend more time together — “Fishing,” she says. “I love to fish.”

Charlie smiles and dutifully nods his head. There is little doubt he will manage a golf club in one hand and a fishing pole in the other with ease.

Candid Charlie

Favorite movie: “Brian’s Song”

Favorite song: “I like old country — Hank Williams Sr., Marty Robbins. But I also listen to Linkin Park. I don’t really have a favorite song.”

Favorite color: “Red”

If I weren’t trucking … “I’d be welding”

Always in the truck cooler: “Ham and cheese. And red peppers on the way out packed by my mother-in-law.”

What I want people to say about me: “He was a good person.”

Favorite place to truck: “Any load coming home.”

Who would play me in a movie: “Beavis or Butthead” (laughs)

One place I’d like to visit: “Australia”