“Absolutely the two most important things to him in life were being honest and being dependable. If he told you he was going to be somewhere at a certain time, he’d be there. His word was his bond. That’s a rarity today.” –Debbie Rice, talking about her longtime companion Daniel James Stout, a veteran truck driver that died of cancer in 2008
The e-mail wasn’t much different from the many others I receive; the submission of custom truck photos for a chance at publication. Yet as soon as I started reading it, that all changed.
The truck in this photo is the pride and joy of Daniel James Stout – an owner-operator with 30 years in the business, who loved trucks and trucking probably as much as anyone in this industry. He’d gotten his truck just right – a fresh paint scheme in the “old style,” tricked out here and there with chrome – when he suddenly contracted brain cancer and died.
It’s probably a story familiar to many in trucking, one that could easily drown in grief and despair. I for one know a little something about that, as it was only two years ago I lost two really good friends – one being Terry Nguyen, our first web editor and one hell of a great writer, who died tragically in June 2007 in a swimming accident while on vacation.
I know all about trying to push memories of the departed away for fear they’ll dredge up even greater amounts of sadness. But that’s not the way it should ever go – and that is certainly not the way Debbie Rice wants it go when it comes to Dan Stout.
You see, Debbie and Dan had been together for almost 14 years, living on what's left of her family ranch in Tucson, Arizona. Dan hauled livestock for a living – mainly cattle – while Debbie operated a small horse boarding business, with room for 19 of the graceful creatures on her five-acre property. They loved animals as you might expect – Debbie told me she’s got 15 cats and five dogs underfoot at the moment – and when Dan wasn’t on the road, he was knee-deep in the ranch, helping her out wherever help was needed.
“I think about him everyday all day,” she said. “I was so lucky that he came into my life. I think we made life good for each other. I will miss him until I can be with him again.”
Now, a lot of folks might sell such a truck after a loved one dies – often times as a way to remove a reminder of grief from their sight. Not Debbie. She’s holding on to Dan’s gorgeous rig and is keeping Dan’s business – Stout Trucking – a going concern, with a part time driver and the help of Dan’s two best friends, both named Dave.
She’s doing this partly out of necessity – hauling livestock, though only part-time, seasonal work, is still a money maker – and partly to preserve Dan’s memory and what he stood for as a trucker.
“I think he always loved trucks. He was the smartest man I know and was like a sponge. He knew a lot about a lot of things, but he knew everything about trucks,” she told me.
Like a lot of trucking veterans, Dan (seen here on the left) is of the “old school.” He went to work for the State of Arizona in a tire shop right out of high school, moving trucks and equipment around the yard on occasion. Tried going to college, didn’t like it, and so learned to drive big rigs from an old time trucker and retired high school teacher. When he was 20 went to work for Atlas Van Lines and at 21 got his CDL and bought his own truck.
“He pulled a dry van for a short time but hated it,” Debbie recalled. “It didn't take him long to figure out that flatbedding and cow hauling was what he wanted to do. And he was absolutely one of the best.”
Debbie told me a lot of local ranchers called on Dan by name, knowing his reputation for getting things not just done but done right. Yet though Dan loved hauling livestock, many times the loads brought tears to his eyes. “He was raised as a child on a cattle ranch – really loved them – so it was always hard when he had to take the old dairy cows to the slaughter house,” Debbie said. “His biggest pride was in always delivering the animals safely to their destination. But, knowing where those old gals were going made it very tough.”
Though Dan was leased out for a great deal of his career, about eight or nine years ago he got his own authority and went on as an owner-operator. And though Dan’s trucking career took him all over the country, once he and Debbie met in 1996, he tried to stay pretty close to home.
And again, like a lot of truckers, Dan (on the right in this picture, with Debbie on the left) adhered to what many dub “old fashioned” – like honesty, dependability, and of course being safe on the road. “Dan used to tell me drivers of cars and trucks just don’t get taught what they need to know to be safe on the road,” Debbie said. “As much as he loved trucking, he complained about the attitudes and behaviors out on the road today. He also soaked up all kinds of statistics on accidents and safety. He never stopped learning about the industry.”
Dan seemed to be hitting his stride as an independent, too – managing his way through the current downturn – when fate intervened. Last year in February, he went to the doctors for a pain in his back; pain that turned out to be brain cancer. Though operated on in March 2008 to deal with the nine tumors found in his head, nothing could be done. By May, he'd passed on.
“It went really fast, thankfully, because he was so angry about the whole situation,” Debbie told me. “I also figured he left that truck for a reason. I just can't sell it. So I've been lucky, with the help of our friends and a good driver to be able to keep his truck working. I think he'd like that.”
She also likes seeing Dan’s name on the side of his truck, heading on down the road. “Corny, I know, but I like to think his spirit is with his truck and me,” she told me. “That's pretty much what I know.”
I think that’s plenty, frankly – a rolling testament to tried and true trucking values that never go out of style. Not a bad way to keep the memory of a trucker rolling on.