Big dog with a big heart
As big as Jerry Kissinger is into trucking and show truck competitions, his heart really belongs to raising money for charity

By Suzanne Stempinski, field editor

Remember when truck drivers had chauffeur’s licenses? Multiple license plates? Bingo cards? Want to have fun talking “remember when”? Have a visit with Jerry Kissinger. He grew up in southern Wisconsin just down the road from where he lives today. He’s a truck driver through and through – third generation behind the wheel. And some pretty impressive wheels indeed.

His grandfather, Roland P. Kissinger, started a pallet company that employed his father, Roland J. Kissinger, and a couple of uncles as well. They’ve all remained active in the transportation industry.

His dad, Roland J., went to work for Pirkle Freight Lines in Cudahy, WI, in the 1960s. Back then, Pirkle was one of the premier LTL carriers in the country. They turned away more owner-operators than they hired.

“If you were a big dog,” Jerry said, “Pirkle was the place to be.” You had to be really good, drive great equipment, and run like your wheels were on fire. In return, you could make a lot of money, keep quiet about your freight, and pretend your log book was a comic book.”

After leaving Pirkle, Roland J. started Wisconsin Provisioners Express, launched from the basement of his home. A couple of name changes and business sales later, he started Independent Operators in 1981. He also owned a couple of truck stops.

As a kid, Jerry changed truck tires in his dad’s shop and turned wrenches. He learned to drive on an old F-model Mack.

Coming of age in the ’70s, Jerry turned a passion for rock ‘n’ roll music into jobs working with bands doing lighting and sound. One band led to another and eventually Jerry found himself climbing the catwalks for musical legends such as Pink Floyd, Guns N’ Roses, Bon Jovi, Luther Vandross and Anita Baker.

“I would have liked to keep doing that, but that lifestyle was hazardous to my health,” Jerry said with a smile.

He finally went to work in the family trucking business knowing “you can’t be the outlaw that you were. You have to be a smarter outlaw.”

His first truck was a 1971 GMC Astro with a 318 Detroit and a 10-speed transmission. No air conditioning, no air ride; but it did have power steering. He ran taco shells from Stoughton, WI, to Grand Rapids or Detroit, MI, and hauled canned goods back to Roundy’s in Milwaukee.

“I was the new guy and the young kid, so I ran the routes that the others didn’t want,” he said. “I was paying my dues.”

Jerry didn’t mind getting back to the office on a regular basis. There was a young woman who worked in accounting and made his eyes light up.

“I fell for Kay when she was working for my dad,” Jerry said. “I didn’t think she was interested in me, but I wasn’t going to give up.”

The two have been happily married for almost 20 years.

In the late 1990s Jerry and a bunch of drivers hopped in his pickup and took a road trip to the Mid-America Trucking Show.

“I had heard about it, but had never managed to get there,” Jerry said. “I ditched the other guys and spent my time looking at the show trucks on the lot.”

It was the pinnacle of the show truck world.

“I thought some of the drivers were unapproachable,” he said. “I didn’t know what a strong community there was behind the scenes.”

Jerry bought out his dad’s interest in the company in 2000 and now has around 20 trucks hauling his freight; a combination of his own and of leased owner-operators. His expanded fleet includes old Mack trucks and the newest, a 2011 Kenworth 660 with a studio sleeper and a 485 Cummins under the hood.

He’s a huge proponent of running smarter, not harder, and he’ll be the first to tell you that making money means running compliant.

His first trip to the Waupun Truck-N-Show was in 2002. He drove his 1991 Mack Superliner, pulling a drop deck trailer that he used to haul his pickup truck. His sleeper had no interior, and the truck was rough because he was in the process of restoring it. It was really just a chance to check out a trucking event he had heard good things about.

A laid-back environment and two parades sounded like a very appealing way to spend some time at a show noted for its fund-raising efforts.

Jerry still remembers his reaction when show organizer Ron VandeZande introduced the kids who were in attendance thanks to the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

“The overwhelming feelings just reached out and grabbed me,” he explained. “A lot of organizations help kids by raising money for treatments and medical procedures. Make-A-Wish helps put a smile on these kids’ faces. It just ripped me open.”

Since then, Jerry has become a tireless supporter of both Make-A-Wish and the Special Olympics, another charity supported by Waupun Truck-N-Show.

Since 2003, Jerry has raised roughly $100,000 and granted 19 wishes to date.

“This couldn’t have happened without the help and support of my wife Kay and Heather, our dispatcher. Heather’s like our daughter, but we got her at age 22,” he said with a laugh.

And his stretched-out, dressed-up 1991 burnt orange Mack Superliner pulling the patriotic 2006 Great Dane reefer has become a familiar sight at truck shows across the country and in the pages of magazines both in print and online.

With more than a million verified miles, it was the first truck inducted into the Shell Rotella Million Mile Haul of Fame in 2011. It still runs up and down the road hauling around the Midwest with an occasional trip to one coast or the other.

If you’re headed to MATS this month, you’ll find Jerry in the show lot – and he’s always happy to talk trucks.

With a shop full of trophies and awards, Jerry is blunt about what drives him.

“If all I wanted was a trophy, I could go to a trophy store and buy one. The bragging rights are cool, but my motivation is the charities.”

Some days you feel like a fire hydrant. Other days, you’re a big dog. LL