By Land Line staff
“Many years ago, we were at a meeting of drivers,” recalls OOIDA President and CEO Jim Johnston, “and the discussion – as it often did in those days – got heated. Some driver started slinging some insults at me and one of our members who was there lunged over the table at the guy in my defense, ready to go at it. … I guess I knew then Todd Spencer was a person the Association could rely on when things got rough.”
Todd laughs that one off today and points out that meetings were not quite as prim and proper years ago and “certainly not as sophisticated” as they are now.
Rewind to 1974. Inspired since childhood by an uncle who was a trucker, Todd got a job as an employee-driver. Two years later, he bought his first truck and started hauling first in the Midwest and later most of the country as an owner-operator. Out of his home base in Oak Grove, Mo., he pulled flatbeds and drop-deck trailers.
In April 1976, he joined OOIDA. He needed truck insurance and liked the idea that all profit from OOIDA’s truck insurance program went back in the kitty to fight for truckers’ rights.
“From the git-go it made sense to me that we should act in a cooperative and collective manner,” he says. “That was a no-brainer from the beginning.”
After buying a truck, he was increasingly troubled at how significantly the playing field was tilted. As a member of OOIDA, that awareness grew.
“I was shocked; in fact, I was appalled at how the deck is stacked against the little guys in trucking,” he says.
In 1978, he was elected to the OOIDA Board of Directors. While he was on the road, he took photos and wrote columns for the Association’s magazine. He continued trucking until November 1981, when he accepted the role of editor of the Association’s magazine, Land Line, and communications director for OOIDA. He sold his two trucks and traded a seat behind a steering wheel for one at a desk at OOIDA headquarters, a building that was once the old Dutchman truck stop in Grain Valley, Mo.
“When he used his own money from the sale of his truck to buy a typesetter, we knew he was hooked,” says Jim. “So we named him editor-in-chief of the magazine.”
He held the post of editor-in-chief of Land Line for more than 30 years, passing the torch in 2012 to Sandi Soendker, whom he hired in 1987 to help with the magazine.
“Building the magazine was slow-going but steady during those years,” says Sandi. “And we worked long hours. Nobody worked longer hours than Todd. You could drive down I-70 at 10 or 11 p.m. on a Friday or even Saturday night and as you passed our dark building, there was always a light on in his office and one car in the parking lot.”
Sandi recalls hearing about a phone call coming in after midnight from a member who intended to leave a message. Instead, he got Todd answering in person.
“Yeah, that member was pretty surprised to have a live person answering the phone, and at that hour,” he says.
It was well-known at OOIDA’s small but growing headquarters that Todd came in early and left late. His family recalls that it wasn’t unusual for him to get up at 2 a.m. to do an all-night radio call-in – most frequently to Dale Sommers, aka “The Truckin’ Bozo.”
During the early ’90s, Todd was a regular on a syndicated all night radio show hosted by Fred Sanders on the Interstate Radio Network out of Chicago. He was also a frequent guest of Dave Nemo’s Road Gang and Bozo’s WLW show out of Cincinnati.
At the office, the staff ribbed him for pushing the limit with long days at the office, nights on the radio, and a total disregard for reasonable work hours for himself.
His response was reliably something like, “no step for a stepper,” an adage that has been adopted by his staff.
In 1992, he was elected to his current position as executive vice president. Over the years, Todd has spearheaded OOIDA’s legislative efforts at federal and state levels, educating lawmakers on the life and concerns of the small-business trucking professional. He says 40 years of support by the organization’s diverse and still growing membership testifies to the fact that truckers want to shape their own future and they are willing to step forward to do so.
He has testified before various committees in the U.S. Congress and in state capitols on trucking issues and served on various committees of the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance and the National Transportation Safety Board as an industry representative. He currently serves on the Motor Carrier Safety Advisory Committee to Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.
At the spring 2012 meeting of the OOIDA Board of Directors, he was re-elected to his fifth term as executive vice president.
While Todd enjoys telling and re-telling of the Association’s history and historical anecdotes, he makes no bones about the fact that he’s all about what OOIDA is today – a mature and nationally recognized organization of professional truckers who join because they are serious about laying down a track record for change.
“Certainly there have been monumental accomplishments in our past, but the future is ahead, not behind,” he says, “and it’s never been more obvious for the need for owner-operators, professional drivers and smaller fleets to be working together.” LL