PAUL Emerson, a Foodliner Inc driver, built a distinguished career as a tank truck driver—and much more—over more than four decades. At 75, he’s still going strong.
Most recently, Emerson was named the National Tank Truck Carriers 2017-2018 Professional Tank Truck Driver of the Year. His is just the fifth name on the William A Usher Sr trophy, which is sponsored by Protective Insurance.
Emerson calls the Professional Tank Truck Driver of the Year process an incredible experience. The journey started in mid-2017 when he was nominated for the award by his terminal manager at the Foodliner location in Diamond, Missouri. Then came word that he had been named a finalist, followed by his selection as 2017-2018 Professional Tank Truck Driver of the Year at the NTTC annual conference in early April in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
When Emerson returned home, he was greeted with a sign at the entrance of the Foodliner terminal welcoming him home as the newest NTTC Professional Tank Truck Driver of the Year and proclaiming a special driver appreciation day with guests that included Foodliner corporate leadership and representatives from ADM, the primary customer served out of the Diamond terminal.
Then in June at the Foodliner headquarters in Dubuque, Iowa, Emerson was presented a new company tractor, a Freightliner Cascadia emblazoned with graphics celebrating his selection as NTTC’s 2017-2018 Professional Tank Truck Driver of the Year. Local media were on hand to cover the truck presentation.
“We’re very proud of Paul being honored as NTTC Professional Tank Truck Driver of the Year,” Foodliner President and Chief Executive Officer Greg McCoy said during the truck presentation. “Paul is very genuine, and he will be a great representative for our industry and our company. We want him to know that all of us at Foodliner stand as a team behind him.”
All of this was more than he could have imagined, Emerson says. “To be singled out from a group of eight champion tank truck drivers was incredible,” he says. “Every one of them was worthy of this honor. Over the next year, I hope to be a positive voice and example for other drivers in this industry.”
Emerson is not your typical truck driver. While he grew up around trucks and learned to drive at an early age, he accumulated a diversified work history before concentrating solely on truck driving.
Growing up in Blackwell, Oklahoma, Emerson found summer jobs working for local farmers for $1 an hour plus room and board. At age 14, he was driving farm trucks as well as other farm equipment.
“I enjoyed operating farm tractors plowing, disking, and harrowing,” he says. “For two years, I worked with a custom wheat harvesting crew, mostly driving a truck hauling grain to elevators.”
After high school, Emerson went to college for about a year before entering the US Army for a three-year stint during the mid 1960s. That was followed by a semester at Oklahoma State University studying aeronautical engineering.
“I left school for a job in the engineering department at McDonnell Aircraft in St Louis (Missouri),” he says. “I worked there for several years, but I got tired of sitting in an office. I prefer being outdoors.
“At one point I visited with a neighbor who drove a flatbed rig on regular runs from Tulsa (Oklahoma) to Houston (Texas). I saw that he was respected by other drivers, and they sought him out for advice. I decided I wanted to be like that man.
“Truck driving was a great fit for me, because I like meeting new people and seeing new places. It’s a lot of work, but I enjoy the challenges. This isn’t the job of choice for someone just wanting to sit around and collect a paycheck. Driving a truck takes real commitment.”
The transition to truck driver started in 1970 when Emerson was hitchhiking in Kansas. He caught a ride with an owner-operator and spent the next couple of weeks riding and driving with the driver, who was hauling explosives to customers in Missouri, Oklahoma, and Texas.
After being dropped off in St Louis, Emerson met another owner-operator, who was polishing a 1968 Peterbilt cabover in his driveway. The truck was powered by a 318-horsepower Detroit Diesel engine, one of those that required a bucket to catch the oil that leaked out when the truck was parked.
The first trip with that driver was from St Louis to Joplin, Missouri. At the time, company drivers were on strike and there were attacks on owner-operators.
By now Emerson was a licensed truck driver, and he found new opportunities hauling crude oil in the Oklahoma oilfields. Following a short stay in Joplin, he returned to Oklahoma to a job at Glass Trucking in Newkirk, Oklahoma. Along the way, he met and married Wanda Ruth of Ponca City, Oklahoma.
“I spent 12 years with Glass Trucking as a driver and a dispatcher,” Emerson says. “This was a diverse operation in which we hauled bulk products such as flour, cattle feed, propane, butane, and anhydrous ammonia. I like tanker work because you don’t have to lift cargo on pallets and move it around.”
Wanda had spent time on the road with Paul one summer soon after they were married. In 1988, they signed on as a driving team with an Arkansas-based freight hauler. Two years later, they were ready to take the big plunge as an owner-operator team.
Initially, they bought a Freightliner in 1990, followed in 2001 by a brand new Volvo with a roomy studio sleeper that was every bit as comfortable as a large RV, and they started driving for Tri-State Motor Transit. They handled a wide range of specialized cargoes for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, aerospace industry, and US military.
They ran hard and put a lot of miles on that truck. From 2001 to 2008—when they sold it—they put nearly a million miles on that truck. “For 11 months, we ran a regular round-trip from Tukwila, Washington to Cape Canaveral, Florida,” Paul says. “We’d stay out 30 days at a time.”
Paul and Wanda remember the team driving as some of their best times together. “We made it fun to drive together,” Wanda says. “We always shared the work. As a husband-and-wife driving team, we learned we had to get along. We had to work side by side, and we had to be able to live at close quarters.”
Wanda had driven a school bus previously, but this was her first serious over-the-road truck driving. She remembers the first trip she drove in the new truck:
“It was a winter run from Joplin to Wichita to Salt Lake City, and part of it was over black ice,” she says. “Paul was very calm and patient, and he was a very good teacher. He was always there for support.”
After Tri-State, they spent eight years with Prestera Trucking Inc, a specialized hauler for the US Department of Defense. Wanda had to call it quits in 2008 after nearly 20 years of driving with Paul due to health problems.
Paul continued driving, this time for Buessing Bulk Transport Inc, a food hauler that had a terminal in Diamond, Missouri. In 2016, the Buessing Bulk operations were acquired by Foodliner, and 45 Foodliner trucks are now based at the Diamond terminal.
Today, Paul hauls bulk flour for Foodliner from mills in Kansas City; Arkansas City, Kansas; Enid, Oklahoma; and Carthage, Missouri. While his career took him to all 48 states in the Continental United States, day trips account for most of his driving now.
His two million miles of accident-free driving combines mileage from Foodliner, Buessing, Prestera, and Tri-State. Much of it was longhaul.
Paul recounts that his first serious reportable accident occurred in January 1990 when high winds in a snowstorm blew his rig over near Big Cabin, Oklahoma. He was traveling at about five miles per hour at the time.
Without question, he would do his truck-driving career all over again. “I absolutely recommend this job,” he says. “Truck driving still affords a lot of freedom and independence. That is true even in today’s more regulated trucking environment.”
Paul’s goal going forward is to be a better mentor to other truck drivers. “Many people helped me over the years, and I need to pay them back by helping other drivers,” he says. “Mentoring is something that is sadly lacking in many truck terminals today.”
Paul says he wants to be a resource to drivers across the industry. “Every driver at my terminal has my phone number, and they know they can call me at any time,” he says. “Experienced drivers throughout this industry need to be available as mentors. I see many less experienced drivers today who lack a good understanding of the equipment. For instance, some don’t understand how to adjust the fifthwheel or the tandems for different axle weights.”
Paul believes more training is needed for new drivers, and the driving schools need improvement.
New drivers need a better sense of the job. “We need to teach drivers more about the value of this industry,” he says. “It’s more than a paycheck. They need a better understanding of taking pride in what they do, and that includes taking care of the equipment.”
Paul says he wants to promote a better public perception of the trucking industry and truck drivers. “We need to serve as personal examples of good driving manners,” he says. “In addition, we need to look like professional tank truck drivers. I shower, shave, and wear a uniform whenever I am working. There are plenty of clean, secure places to clean up today. There are no excuses for looking like a slob.
“A truck driver can be his own worst enemy when it comes to image. CB radios are still in use out there, and the cowboy mentality is still there in the way some drivers use the radios. The bad overshadows the good.”
He applauds the electronic driver log requirements. “I like the ELD rule,” he says. “It means dispatchers can’t ask you to make a delivery schedule that is unrealistic. I like the fact that the computer fills out the log report.”
Paul may be most passionate about the risks posed by distracted driving, and he is a supporter of the new Zero Distractions campaign recently launched by National Tank Truck Carriers. While cell phones are a key focus of the campaign, Paul says that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
“We need to remove all of the distractions, and there are so many in and around a truck cab,” he says. “Make sure the cab interior is clean, along with the mirrors and windows. Avoid food and drinks while driving.
“Be more observant when inspecting your rig, and pay more attention to what is going on around you while you are driving. Drive slower, and anticipate what other drivers might do. Leave early, and plan to be late. Focus completely on driving safely.”