The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association announced today that Jim Johnston, its resilient leader whose enduring vision secured a position on the frontlines for truckers’ rights for more than four decades, died Monday, Jan. 8. Johnston served as OOIDA president and chief executive officer since 1975.
“Jim loved every minute he spent behind the wheel as a trucker, but when circumstances required it in the ’70s he stepped down from behind the wheel to give a badly needed voice to truckers, the real truckers that move America. Every driver today is better off because of that long ago decision he made,” said Todd Spencer, acting OOIDA president. "Our hearts are very heavy as we pass along this sad news – Jim Johnston, OOIDA’s President and CEO, has passed away following a courageous battle with cancer. "
Jim was born in Summerfield, Mass., on July 23, 1939, to Richard Vernon Johnston and Dorthea Kelley Johnston. He was raised in the Midwest after the family moved to Davenport, Iowa, when Jim was a child.
He enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1956. He was a boilerman on four ships – two troop ships, an ammunition ship and a survey ship. After completing his military service in the U.S. Navy, Jim entered the trucking industry as a driver and an owner-operator.
He started driving in 1960, before he had a license to drive a truck. He had partnered up with a friend. The “friend” got an advance on a load and took off with the money leaving Jim on his own.
When Jim drove his truck to the DMV to take his test, the examiner asked how he got the truck there Jim told him he drove it. The examiner was amused and commented on how big the truck was. Figuring the examiner knew even less about the truck than Jim did, he was sure he had it made. Jim passed his test and “got legal.” He was then driving for Diamond Transportation out of Wisconsin, hauling mostly farm machinery.
It was in 1969 that Jim moved to Grain Valley, Mo., where he got a job trucking for All Star Dairy in Lawrence, Kan. Those were turbulent years and Jim became active in the trucking industry, an industry beset with a growing list of desperations.
The subsequent trucking shutdowns across the country created the need for truckers to form an association in order to effectively communicate their concerns to lawmakers. In 1973, OOIDA was established. The leadership role of the newly formed Association was soon thrust upon him.
In 1974 he married his longtime girlfriend, Mary Carroll. The couple had met in the early 1960s when Mary was a waitress in Milan, Ill., and she often trucked with Jim. She was a driving force behind OOIDA until her death Oct. 16, 2008, of leukemia.
Most of the Association’s founding members had returned to full-time operation of their businesses by 1975. Jim had been elected president of OOIDA in 1975, its third president since its founding two years earlier. Jim said he was the “only one left and too dumb or stubborn to know when to quit.”
Because of his need to divide his time between operating his trucking business and the Association, one truck had already been lost to repossession and the other was on the edge. One or the other had to go. He gave up his truck to focus on the OOIDA responsibility full time.
From its humble beginnings in a trailer chained to a light pole at a truck stop in Grain Valley, Jim nurtured OOIDA to its current status as the largest national organization of professional truckers in the country.
The determination, strength of character and personal charisma that helped him persevere through the difficulties of OOIDA’s early years also served to make Jim an outspoken champion for the rights and well-being of all professional truckers. He boldly led OOIDA’s legal challenges against many state governments and regulatory bodies on issues associated with unfair treatment against truckers – winning landmark cases in Tennessee, Alabama, Minnesota and many more. He has taken on major motor carriers for violations in truth-in-leasing regulations and other abuses of small-business truckers’ rights.
Jim considered the case that took down the Tennessee Public Service Commission one of the most satisfying because of the level of corruption with truck enforcement officers shaking down out-of-state truckers for campaign contributions.
OOIDA’s litigation efforts have scored wins in stopping random roadside drug testing, fatigue checklists and put more than $150 million back in the pockets of truck drivers – to name a few highlights.
Jim’s concern with areas of commercial vehicle safety led to his inclusion in numerous research forums on behalf of the views of professional truckers. He was active in White House working groups during the Carter administration. He also served on research panels of the National Academies of Sciences Transportation Research Board, the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment, U.S. Government Accountability Office, and others dealing with various aspects of trucking operations, such as commercial vehicle safety, truck size and weight issues.
He formerly served on the National Motor Carrier Safety Advisory Committee to the U.S. Department of Transportation. He was a member of the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance Senior Strategic Advisory Committee, and a former member of the ITS America Commercial Vehicle Operations Policy Subcommittee, on which he served as chairman of the committee’s Data Privacy and Control Task Force.
Along with his job as president of the largest and most influential organization of professional truckers in North America, Jim was the force behind the business side of OOIDA. Under his leadership, OOIDA has put together a robust collection of services and programs for drivers. Unique to OOIDA, revenue from any of the programs or services do not go to shareholders. Any profits go directly toward funding the fight to protect and ensure the rights of truckers.
In 2010, Jim married Karen Breuer England. They lived in Grain Valley and often enjoyed weekends in the Missouri Ozarks at Pomme de Terre Lake.
Jim was very much a full-time CEO. He continued to be regularly consulted by the administration, congressional leaders and the Department of Transportation on regulatory issues affecting the trucking industry.
On Oct. 6, 2015, he was honored for his leadership and dedication to the industry on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives by Rep. Bill Shuster. Shuster is the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
Jim also served as CEO of OOIDA and the Association’s subsidiaries. During the board meeting in October 2015, he was re-elected president of the Association. He served eight five-year terms and was currently serving his ninth term.
In 2016, he was diagnosed with lung cancer that required surgery and an aggressive post-op treatment plan. Despite doctor’s orders, he continued to work as much as possible during radiation and chemotherapy. By the 2017 spring board meeting, he was back to work every day. A bad MRSA infection hospitalized him in the spring, but he was back in his office by late summer. In the October 2017 board meeting, he shared his health situation with board members. The cancer was back, he said, and incurable.
He continued to work full time up until only days before his passing and remained dedicated to his core mission and that of the Association – fighting for the rights of all truckers.
He was preceded in death by his parents, Richard and Dorthea; brothers Richard Jr. and Sidney; and sisters Clair and Virginia. He is survived by his wife, Karen; son Nate Quick and his wife Tara; daughter Katie Bushong and her husband Chris; brother, Charles "Chuck" and wife Diana; along with a host of nieces and nephews, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
OOIDA has created a tribute page on its website for members and friends to leave thoughts or comments for Jim and his family. Service information is pending.
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