By Greg Grisolano, staff writer
Let’s start with a Mississippi-born driver named J.W. Edwards, also known by his CB handle: “River Rat.”
Edwards was OOIDA’s first president and one of the leaders of the 1973 protest by truckers, most of them independents, against high fuel prices and aggravating regulations. During that turbulent year, Edwards pulled his truck across both lanes of traffic on I-80 at Lamar, Pa., and refused to move until he got a meeting with powerful people in D.C. who could address the problems of truckers.
Edwards got his audience when the governor of Pennsylvania arranged meetings in Washington, D.C. When Edwards was summoned to D.C., he called for help from several other truckers.
One of the truckers who dropped everything and headed to Capitol Hill was Jim Johnston, a young trucker from Missouri.
Edwards was OOIDA’s first president, but soon went back to trucking. Al Hannah became the Association’s second president, beginning in early 1974 until the end of that year. After Hannah also went back to trucking, the job was passed to Jim Johnston. In 1975, Johnston was elected president, a position he still holds.
Edwards never became a part of the growing trucker group he helped to establish. After the early years, for whatever reason, he never contacted Johnston or the other founders.
“While he was not part of the building of the organization, he was certainly a significant part of the initiative that started the organization,” Johnston said.
So what happened to J.W. Edwards, the fed-up protester whose bold move motivated truckers to shut down and whose colorful defiance captured the interest of broadcast icons like Walter Cronkite, numerous newspapers and even Time Magazine?
In 1975, The Associated Press had an interview with Edwards. It reported that Edwards couldn’t make a living trucking and had taken another job running a service station in the Kansas City area. Despite the fact he was no longer active in the association he helped establish, he believed that it was the only group that represented truckers. “It’s growing and, sooner or later, it’s going to do the job,” he said.
The AP story quoted a discouraged Edwards as saying he no longer represented truckers but spoke only as a citizen.
“I prefer to do my business and leave everything else alone right now,” he told the news agency.
One of Edwards’ sons, Frank Edwards, lives in Raymore, Mo. He told Land Line that his father went back to trucking and drove as long as his physical condition allowed, then retired. He later moved to Tennessee.
Frank Edwards said his dad wasn’t the kind of man who was afraid to speak his mind. He said his father often told the story of getting the black-out treatment on a TV interview following his interstate shutdown stunt.
“I can’t say it’s 100 percent true, because truckers like to stretch things, but during an interview with one of those Sunday morning shows, they asked him if he thought (President) Nixon was doing a good job,” the younger Edwards recalled. “They had to black out the TV because he told them Nixon couldn’t wipe his ass with instructions on the toilet paper. That was just the way he was. If you asked him something, he was going to tell you.”
Frank Edwards said the two things in life his father was most proud of was his service with the U.S. Army in the Korean War, and his career as an independent truck driver. In fact, Edwards passed the driving itch down to his children. Both of his sons and one of his daughters spent time at the wheel of a big rig.
“To him, that was life,” Frank said. “Everything revolved around those two things (the military and trucking). He lived in that truck. If he could go to a formal banquet with the best dressed women there or go get in the truck, he’d go get in the truck.”
Edwards’ son said the last 10 years of his dad’s life were tough ones, spent battling health issues. When his health forced him off the road for good, he took up a career in computer repair.
On Oct. 28, 2012, J.W. Edwards died of cancer. He is survived by his wife, Elizabeth, of Holladay, Tenn., two sons and two daughters.
a desk job?
Before Al Hannah joined Jim Johnston and the rest of the truckers who were fighting for their rights on Capitol Hill in 1973, he’d been working as a long-hauler out of Las Vegas, hauling swinging beef, dry goods, and just about anything else he could fit in his trailer.
“I never went to college or anything,” Al said. “I got drafted into the service from graduation when I turned 18. After I got out of the Army, I got into trucking.”
Al said that just before the first wave of shutdowns and protests rocked the trucking industry in late 1973, he was making plans to open his own truck stop in Lathrop Wells, Nev. After a year of traveling to and from Washington, D.C., with Jim, Al said he was left with a choice. And the idea of being saddled with a desk job didn’t really have much appeal for a man whose CB handle was “The Wild Stallion.”
“I’m not an office-type guy,” he said. “I had other things going and couldn’t stay back there in Kansas City and try to scrape by. It would’ve been damn tough for both me and Jim to try to do that in the beginning.”
So back to the Silver State he went. He ran The Watering Hole truck stop for almost a decade, before he went to work at the Nevada Testing Site for 17 years, where the U.S. government performed underground testing and detonations of nuclear weapons.
Al is the father of five sons, the oldest 51 and the youngest 44. He and his wife will celebrate their 23rd anniversary the Fourth of July. The couple has 13 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. When he first retired, the couple bought an RV and spent about eight years touring the country. Al is a life member of OOIDA. They now live in Las Vegas.
“Trucking made my living for about 40-some years until I retired,” he said. “It’s always been a good occupation, if you do it and do it right. I backed OOIDA because of things they were trying to do. I was just fortunate to be in the right place at the right time when we started to form this thing.”
Highs and lows
Born in Massachusetts, Jim Johnston grew up in the farm country of Iowa. After school, he joined the U.S. Navy. After a tour of duty, he returned to Iowa and in 1963 decided that trucking was the job for him. He learned to drive and bought a 1960 5000 model White, used.
He operated over the road with that truck, then another, with a couple of short stints in between as a company driver for the next 12 years. He met his first wife, Mary, in the early ’60s in Milan, Ill. Mary passed away in 2008 after bravely battling leukemia for more than two years.
It was in the ’60s that Jim and Mary moved to Grain Valley, Mo., and Jim leased his truck to All Star Transportation in Lawrence, Kan.
It wasn’t long before he found himself immersed in the aggravations of being an owner-operator trucker during the volatile 1970s. In 1975, he was elected president of the fledgling Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association of America, an association he helped establish just over a year before.
He had been serving as vice president while trying to continue operating his own truck to take care of his family and provide funding to keep the Association going. He was traveling back and forth to D.C. for meetings at the various regulatory agencies and Congressional hearing and with other trucker groups.
At that time, Jim was one of only two of the founding members who remained, and the other guy left shortly after Jim took over. The Association was on the verge of collapse, with membership dwindling all the way down to 35 dues-paying members out of approximately 3,000 who first signed up.
Faced with giving up on either the Association or his own trucking career, Jim chose to ride it out with OOIDA for the long haul. He let his truck go back to the finance company.
“I’m not sure whether I was too dumb to know it couldn’t be done or just too stubborn to quit,” he said.
Jim’s initial term as president of the OOIDA was as much about being the last man standing as anything. The stories of the highs and lows of his tenure as president and CEO are the stories of the organization’s own highlights and lowlights.
Those accomplishments include expanding the membership from only a handful of dedicated drivers to nearly 150,000 truckers today; pushing for legislation to protect truckers and the industry; fighting unnecessary and burdensome regulations; and waging a series of legal battles at the state and federal level on behalf drivers who faced harassment from law enforcement or predatory financial practices from motor carriers.
“The biggest accomplishment was setting up the organizational structure that would work for the long term,” Jim said. “A lot of that was going the route of a business association, setting up benefit programs that would attract members and keep them in the association. Early on, there were more than 125 organizations and none of them took that route. Over the years, I watched them drop out.”
One of the largest benefit programs is OOIDA’s truck insurance program. That provided the revenue for the organization to mount its challenges in both the courtroom and Congress.
Those regulatory and legislative fights include establishing uniform licensing and permitting regulations nationwide; setting up universal registration and an International Fuel Tax Agreement; fuel surcharges; and soliciting the federal government to create uniform size and weight limits on the National Highway System.
While he mentioned several cases as milestones for the organization, Jim highlighted the legal battle between OOIDA and the Tennessee Public Service Commission, a lawsuit that began in 1990 after the Association received verified complaints from members of abusive practices by Tennessee truck inspectors.
“It was an agency run amok,” Jim said. “They were using it as a cash cow for political leaders, essentially extorting drivers. … If you refused to allow them to search your truck as part of this inspection, they’d haul you off to jail.”
In 1994, the U.S. District Court issued a ruling, which found that the tactics of PSC commissioner Keith Bissell violated truckers’ rights. In 1995, Gov. Don Sundquist signed a bill into law to abolish the commission. It took effect in 1996.
“We didn’t win on the Fourth Amendment issue of illegal search and seizure, but we did win on a lot of other issues,” Jim said. “We uncovered a lot of political corruption that was tied to the PSC, and the search issue was resolved because they quit the practice. The final result of the lawsuit: They ended up paying our attorney’s fees, which were in the neighborhood of $1 million, and the PSC was abolished, largely because of the corruption we uncovered.”
On the other side of the coin, Jim said the biggest regrets aren’t positions the organization has taken, or even some of the defeats it’s been dealt from a legislative or legal sense. He said the biggest regret is “we haven’t been able to find the key to getting the support of a majority of the truckers out there.”
“Essentially we’ve had to do the job with a small percentage of the truckers,” he said. “Some of the losses we’ve suffered over the years were because we didn’t have the numbers. One example would be random drug testing requirements. If we’d have had a million or so truckers contacting their representatives, we wouldn’t have had to challenge that in court.
“I’ve not had any regrets on the directions we’ve taken on different issues,” he said. “I blame ourselves for not finding the keys to building the necessary numbers. We’re around 150,000 members, and that’s a very, very small percentage of the total number of truckers out there. A very small percentage of truckers out there have been carrying the ball for everyone. We could’ve gotten so much more done with more support.
“As the numbers grow, we’re able to accomplish more, but you end up having to take the issue to court and it’s a gamble which way the court’s going to go. If you’ve got the numbers and a significant amount of participation, you can do it through Congress. Getting folks to participate on the issues, we can stop things from happening. We’re successful in turning around a lot of things that could’ve happened.”
Jim has led the Association for 38 years and, as he has for almost four decades, comes to work every day in jeans and boots. He and his wife, Karen, live on a farm near Grain Valley – where he has lived for more than 25 years.
On Oct. 2, 2010, he was elected by the Board of Directors to his eighth five-year term as president and CEO of OOIDA. LL
Land Line Editor-in-Chief Sandi Soendker contributed to this story.