Trucking family deals with loss of young husband, father

| 6/25/2007

Darrell Nunley called home on Friday, June 1, as he did every night before bed when out on the road.

Photo: Courtesy/Shawn Nunley

Shortly after truck driver Darrell Nunley Jr. died in early June, his 10-year-old son, Darrell Nunley III, drew this picture of his father's funeral procession. Shawn Nunley, Darrell III's mother, found it in his backpack recently after the school year ended.

On this night, however, Darrell said he felt sharp pain “like a knife” in the middle of his back.

As he lay down, Darrell asked his wife, Shawn, to call Annabelle Heward-Long, Darrell’s grandmother and a minister, to pray for him.

“Whenever we get sick or anything, we call her and get our grandmother to pray for us and it seems like we’re better,” Shawn, an OOIDA member from Severn, MD, told Land Line Magazine.

Shawn, you know I really love you,” Darrell said. “I love you, too,” she replied.

After getting Darrell’s grandmother on the phone, Shawn switched back to Darrell but didn’t hear anything from his end.

At the age of 38, Darrell Nunley Jr. was dead.

Darrell’s family includes Shawn, his wife of 12 years, and three boys – 10-year-old Darrell Nunley III and 7-year-old twins Toby and Travis.

The family is accepting donations for the boys. Checks may be sent to:
            The Nunley Boys Memorial Fund
            c/o the Provident Bank
            670 Old Miller Road
            Millersville MD 21108

“I told the kids, we’ll just try to stretch our money as long as we can this summer,” Shawn said. “When they go back to school, I’ll try and find a job.”

Man of the house
Since the age of 16, Darrell Nunley literally was the man in his neighborhood.

The father of three lived on a cul-de-sac in Severn, MD, where he grew up among several relatives. After his father, Darrell Sr., passed away when Darrell Jr. was 16, Darrell was the only man around for his sister, grandmother, mother and great-grandmother, all who lived in neighboring households.

Darrell owned his own auto repair business, and learned plumbing and contracting trades before saving enough money to buy a purple 1998 Kenworth Classic W900.

Other drivers would rib Darrell about his truck’s purple hue, kept immaculate by weekly washes and coats of wax, Shawn said.

“But he’d say, ‘that Barneymobile is clean, though,’ ” Shawn said.

Though Darrell hadn’t been a trucker for long, he routinely pulled over to help others with engine problems and was quick to offer advice at truck stops, Shawn said.

For four years, Darrell hauled candy and medicine from Maryland to Kansas before making a return trip with frozen foods he picked up at the SubTropolis, an underground warehouse built into former limestone mines in Kansas City, MO. During off-days, Darrell would spend free time fixing cars and making household repairs for his relatives.

Darrell’s boys frequently went with their dad on his route to Kansas City, and the family had made plans to stay on the road together for much of this summer. Other drivers were nice to the boys, Shawn believed, due to missing their own families.

“It seems like truck drivers are all kind of a big family,” she said.

The family had a playful water battle in the hours before Darrell took his last trip, Shawn said.

On Wednesday, May 30, Darrell left Maryland and picked up a load on Friday, June 1 in Kansas City. Returning home, he made his way east on I-70 across Missouri, stopping near St. Louis in Warrenton, MO, for dinner with Gary Yeager, a trucking friend.

Throughout the dinner and afterward, Darrell complained of a sharp pain down his spine, according to Yeager.

After 10 p.m., Darrell called Shawn, asking her to call his grandmother so she could pray for him while he was on “hold.” When Shawn checked back a few minutes later, the line was silent.

Yeager found Darrell’s body, called authorities and had mutual friends go to the Nunley house to be with Shawn before he called her and told her that Darrell had died.

The coroner told Shawn that Darrell had suffered an aneurism in his heart that was related to a condition that had been diagnosed when he was a child. Through multiple phone calls to the Nunley household, the coroner assured Shawn that his condition wasn’t fixable by surgery, and that death came quickly.

Mike Heward, Darrell’s uncle, decided to build a box resembling a red wagon after seeing home movies of his nephew pulling children in a toy wagon. He affixed the box on Darrell’s fifth wheel, and the family used Darrell’s truck to take his casket from the funeral home to the gravesite on June 8.

Moving on
The reality of Darrell’s passing is only beginning to sink in, Shawn said. His absence hits hard when the boys briefly forget he isn’t coming back from a run, and late in the evening when Shawn can’t call him to share a long conversation.

“With the way the kids always want something, that was the only time we could talk,” Shawn said. “It’s kind of hard. I’m kind of lost – we were really close.”

When Toby and Travis school studies suffered after they were placed in separate classrooms, the Nunley family joined an organization lobbying for a state law to allow twins to remain in the same classroom. Darrell’s death has put the family’s lobbying efforts on the back burner, she said.

Days after Darrell’s burial, Shawn and the boys visited his gravesite during the evening to see the LED lights she’d placed on the ground in his honor.

“We haven’t gotten a headstone,” she said.

The boys became upset when the lights didn’t work, though Shawn was later able to turn them on.

A few days ago, Shawn Nunley went through Darrell III’s school backpack. Inside was a drawing of his dad’s Kenworth Classic, complete with the red wagon box carrying a casket.

“I literally broke up,” Shawn said.

Shawn believes she’ll have to sell the Kenworth to pay off bills, though she’s been offered local routes to drive in the area. School and the boys’ other activities would be difficult to manage if she was waiting to have freight unloaded everyday.

“The kids don’t want me to sell it, I don’t want to get rid of it, but you have to kind of make ends meet, you know?” she said.

Though she’s felt despondent at times since her husband’s passing, Shawn said the boys’ needs keep her moving forward.

“We’re a close family,” she said. “I have no choice. I have three kids, I have to move on.”

– By Charlie Morasch, staff writer