By Dave Sweetman
“I can’t make you rich, but I can make you famous.”
Those were the first words I heard Bette Garber speak almost 25 years ago, and I heard her repeat them many times when a truck and its driver caught her eye. It was the start of a wonderful friendship and learning process.
In 1984 I was perfectly happy in my cabover Kenworth, doing the meat and produce routes for a New York-based carrier. I was driving down U.S. 202 in eastern Pennsylvania when a voice came on the CB commanding me to “STOP that truck! I need pictures of that truck.”
A van pulled a U-turn across the median and chased me down. The voice explained that she worked for American Trucker magazine. We stopped, exchanged phone numbers and handshakes. Not long after, I was featured in a magazine article and photo spread by the same crazy woman.
Over the years, our paths crossed many times when I was a competitor at truck show beauty contests in Louisville, Walcott, Englishtown or anywhere there were show trucks.
Bette was there photographing and documenting not only the trucks but also the drivers and their families. Bette was part of the family and cherished every one of those family reunions. She didn’t just see our lives from behind the lens. She lived it with us, on the road, in the cabs of trucks she rode in with her pal Kim Grimm, another OOIDA member.
She worked on the Trucker Buddy Board of Directors because she knew how much the program helped the image and esteem of the drivers and the industry she loved. Bette also chased us across country, from Waupun, WI, to Reno on both Trucker Buddy Share America Convoys. She didn’t just talk about it; she worked it, lived it, and used her experiences to showcase the best the industry had to offer.
In the mid-1990s, I was lucky enough to be hired as a contributing writer for several trucking magazines. Bette was always the first to offer words of encouragement or ways to make my writing better, helping me to hone a craft I didn’t know I had.
In 1998, when I was hired by the same family of magazines Bette worked for, she made sure I felt welcome and we would often trade ideas on projects. Her phone calls with her cackling laugh would let me know when I hit the mark with a bit of humor. Her notes and e-mails were always a joy as I valued her opinions more than she knew.
Extremely humble, Bette would often blush at the idea that people would make such a stir over her work. Her books on custom trucks were sold out; her presence at shows would cause a crowd of fans and admirers who would also look after her. Folks would bring Bette water when it was hot, coffee when it was cold, and help steady her ladder when she was tottering on the top rung getting that perfect shot. Her family of drivers looked out for her because, as I told her several times, she was a road dog just like the rest of us.
Her “Lil Red Rooster Cruiser” golf cart, decked out with dangling rubber chickens, Betty Boop stickers, and a trunk full of photo equipment made her easy to spot in crowded show aisles.
Many did not know that she earned her CDL at a driving school in Bordentown, NJ. Not because she wanted to be a truck driver but because she wanted to know what it felt like to command a 80,000-pound truck, to back a 53-foot trailer into a dock, to know how to dodge cars and fire hydrants. Bette called me, cussing a blue streak because she got grease on a good jacket and in her hair while pulling the fifth wheel release pin. We both laughed because we knew she had arrived.
Henri Cartier-Bresson is a French photographer considered to be the father of modern photojournalism. The New York Times described Bette Garber as the “Cartier-Bresson of Big Rig Trucking.” I can think of no finer tribute.
Her words and photographs have made many people see us in a better light and perhaps helped many outside the trucking world see the beauty of big trucks, the dedication and sacrifices of the drivers, and the passion many share for our industry. Bette shared that passion because it came from her heart.
Bette Garber died Nov. 13, 2008, in Philadelphia from complications of pneumonia. LL
Dave Sweetman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.