It doesn’t seem like that many years back that an OOIDA member named Gary King would come by the Association’s Missouri headquarters to visit and talk about his dream to establish a trucker-student pen-pal program. He’d roar into the parking lot and climb out of his old Dart Transit truck, hitch up his faded denim overalls and come in to chew the fat about the program he’d call “Trucker Buddy.”
L-R: Paul Abelson, Darrell Hicks, Harvey Zander, Karen Zander, Gary King, Kim Grimm and Carolyn Moon, enjoying the Truckers Jamboree 2006 in Walcott, IA.
On June 9, 2007, after battling both cancer and heart disease, Gary King died in his sleep in Elkhorn, WI. He was 61.
He’ll be missed by his friends at OOIDA and throughout the entire trucking industry, but he’ll long be outlived by the incredible success of his Trucker Buddy dream.
Land Line Managing Editor Sandi Soendker remembers those visits from King and how his program got started.
“Gary thought it would be a wonderful program to provide students with a ‘Trucker Buddy’ pen pal,” Soendker said.
“He started by corresponding with one class, sending postcards and notes. Soon he had talked other truckers into adopting classes. He had great stories about kids and lonely truck drivers. Some would make you laugh; some bring tears to your eyes.
“He would come in and visit with Todd Spencer, Jim Johnston, me and others at OOIDA. He would share a story about some detached, hard-working old road hermit who first refused to sign up saying he had nothing in common with kids, but got talked into it. When Gary talked to him six months later, the trucker would be raving proudly over his class. When Gary talked about it, he would get choked up telling it.”
As the industry became hooked on King’s idea, one of the first “industry advisors” was Land Line Senior Technical Editor Paul Abelson. Later, those advisors became the Board of Directors. Abelson served six years, is currently on the Board of Advisors, and is a close friend of the King family.
“Gary had a great idea,” said Abelson, also a Trucker Buddy with his own class. “To make trucking and school an integral reality for the kids – not just adding up apples, but doing real stuff like figuring mileage to calculating weight on axles. It was real and it was interesting to the kids. Classrooms picked up on it and it grew.”
Another old friend, Ellen Voie, adds to the memories. Voie said King will never know the extent of the influence he has had on more than 2 million children who have had a Trucker Buddy since the program’s inception in 1993. Voie was Trucker Buddy’s executive director for years.
In 1994, some people then working for the Kenworth Truck Company gave the Trucker Buddy program a boost by encouraging their company to provide major funding for the recently formed nonprofit organization. Kim Grimm, a team owner-operator with her husband Rod, and Dave Sweetman, an auto hauler with Horseless Carriage, were members of the Kenworth Drivers Advisor Board in 1993. The Board recommended that Kenworth support the program.
“Gary King brought big trucks and little kids together in a big way.” Kim Grimm said. “When he founded the Trucker Buddy program, he laid the foundation for something great. He will truly be missed, but his legacy will live on.”
“There have been few people I have met who have offered so much of themselves for the benefit of others,” Sweetman said of King. “He was a man of vision with a big heart and the ability to surround himself with people like himself, people who care about our children’s future and about the trucking industry.”
Sweetman later became a Trucker Buddy Board Member and Vice Chairman of the Board.
King called himself “just a trucker with a good idea,” according to Doug Siefkes, principal of SiefkesPetit, a PR agency. “Humble, good natured, compassionate. That’s what I think when I think of Gary King. What he accomplished will live on forever. He showed what one man with an idea can accomplish.”
Other sponsors began stepping up, including OOIDA. The Association is still an active supporter of the program.
Eventually, King quit driving and devoted himself to promoting the goals of the Trucker Buddy program at trade shows and industry events.
After King’s health problems kept him from working and traveling, he turned Trucker Buddy over to Voie in 2000. She continued to grow the program until 2006, when she left that post. Roxane Rose now serves as Trucker Buddy’s executive director.
Rose reported Monday, June 11, that she had talked with a number of Trucker Buddies, passing on the news of King’s death. She said that while King is in everyone’s thoughts, many Trucker Buddies are thinking of his wife, Carol King.
“Gary was the face, the original concept, but a little known fact is his wife deserves as much credit as Gary did on making the program happen,” Rose said. “The two of them have done so much. The loss to Carol is unimaginable and we want her to know we are thinking of her and we appreciate all she has done.”
King is also survived by three children – Sarah, Melissa and David.
Services are scheduled for Saturday, June 16, at 1 p.m. at Haase, Derrick and Lockwood Funeral Home, 730 Wisconsin Street, Elkhorn, WI.
Donations can be sent to:
Gary King Memorial Fund
C/O Monona State Bank
PO Box 6500
Monona, WI 53716
– By Land Line staff