Diversions — Profile — Ron Sowder
One UPS driver’s 50th year with the company behind him
Can you imagine staying 50 years with the same trucking company? We’ve heard no shortage of stories about independents who’ve stayed active that long leased to different carriers or on their own, but as far as UPS knows, Springboro, Ohio, resident Ron “Big Dog” Sowder “may be the only [company driver] in the trucking industry to have ever done that,” company reps say. He’s certainly the longest-serving member of the company’s elite “Circle of Honor” all-safe-mile drivers with more than 25 years under their belts, by far.
Sowder started his career with the company in 1962 after serving in the Navy. “I was a boiler operator,” he says of his armed forces responsibilities — “high-pressure boilers on a destroyer.” When he saw a UPS employment ad in the newspaper shortly after returning from service, “it was a slack season for jobs” and “there were all kinds of people there” making applications in Cincinnati, he says. “I was one of the very few who knew anything about UPS at the time.”
He got one of the jobs, delivering locally before going over-the-road. A full half-century later, he’s still working for the company on a feeder run that starts every workday morning at 8 a.m. at UPS’ West Carrollton, Ohio, center. “I go to Sharonville, then to Cincinnati.” From there he’s Louisville-bound, where he picks up “second-day-air volume back” toward where he started.
In January this year, UPS held a big celebration for Sowder at the West Carrollton operating center to culminate his half-century of service. It started with “a police escort by the state patrol from Monroe all the way back to West Carrollton — one car in front of me and one behind me,” he says. “I turned my CB on and the truckers were sure I was carrying a gold shipment. They escorted me up to the gate,” where the banner pictured on the previous page marked the finish line for Sowder’s 50 years. A steak dinner at Jag’s in West Chester, Ohio, followed the celebration, with a “ride home in a stretch limo,” Sowder says. It was there outside his home “the next morning to take me to work, where breakfast for everyone” was served.
All in all, he says, it was a fantastic high mark in a long, stable career. He cites general job satisfaction as what’s kept him with UPS this long, chief among perks being “good pay, benefits, you name it,” he says. “Our pension, I’m enjoying [that] right now,” at age 72.
Looking back, among the many changes he’s seen in 50 years, while some have been for the worse (see sidebar), he says driver comfort advancements in equipment are certainly a contender for some of the better industry changes. “Some of the stuff we drove over the years wasn’t the best,” he says, recalling the days when “the back of your leg would burn up. The trucks we have now are so much better” in creature comforts.
“We’ve turned over a million miles in my truck as of the fall, and it still rides and drives like new,” he says of the 2006 International he slip-seats with another driver on the night shift.
At once, though, he missed the solid feel of the 1950s-model Reo Royale he drove in the 1970s. “They only made about 25 and UPS owned 23 of them,” he says. “It was built up good. There’s no plastic like they put on the trucks today — everything was steel and held the road in bad weather. It was the best one I ever drove.”
He plans to “at least finish out the year,” he says. After that, his collection of 23 antique farm tractors — some John Deere, International, Oliver and Farmall models — needs attention. “I really don’t have a lot of time to keep them going,” he says.
Otherwise, “I’ll do some serious fishing and maybe go on some cruises,” he says.
Courtesy no Longer catching
You may have heard Ron Sowder on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition in January. On the occasion of his 50th anniversary celebration, Sowder told program host Steve Innskeep that, among the ways in which the work of driving has changed over the years, one of the biggest was basic courtesy: “The old saying used to be ‘courtesy is contagious’ — not so much anymore,” Sowder said. “You let people in, and that’s that. Only about one out of 50 can bring themselves to throw their hand up [as] ‘thanks. ’”