Reporter’s notebook: The story behind the story of OOIDA’s beginnings

May 3, 2013

Greg Grisolano


At less than 90 days into my tenure at Land Line, most people still call me “The New Guy.” In fact, I was introduced to a co-worker’s fiancée as such just the other day. One of my colleagues only recently figured out my name isn’t Chris.

That’s not meant to sound like a complaint. I am The New Guy, in more ways than one. Coming from a newspaper background doesn’t exactly lend itself to being an expert in an industry as diverse and complex as trucking. It can be a little overwhelming at times. So credit and props have to be given to the editorial staff here for trusting said “New Guy” with a story as important as the early history of OOIDA (and a cover story, to boot).

And what a history it is! To understand where this organization is today, and where it’s going, it’s critical to know and understand where we’ve come from. And beginnings really don’t get that much more humble than those of OOIDA.

There’s an old saw in the journalism business that every story you write is really three stories: The story you think you’re going to write, the story you end up writing, and the story that you wish you’d written but couldn’t quite get.

It’s that last story I want to share with you today.

The one that got away

There were a couple of things I wish I could’ve gotten for this piece, but we missed out on them. One of them was an interview with former Kansas Sen. Bob Dole.

Dole, a freshman senator at the time, acted as liaison between a group of disgruntled truckers and the bureaucrats in D.C. during those initial meetings in late 1973 and early 1974.

We reached out to the former senator’s office to see if we could secure an interview, but Dole politely declined. While we weren’t able to get an interview, we were able to get some great information and assistance from the staff at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas in Lawrence.

The staff at the Dole Institute were able to comb through the archives and find press releases from Dole about the energy crisis in 1973. The press releases helped us flesh out a timeline of those first few pivotal meetings, when truckers like Jim Johnston and Al Hannah thought all they’d have to do to fix the problem was just tell somebody in Washington about it.

They also opened up their photo archives to me, which brings me to my next point…

Photo hunting

Once interviews and background are fleshed out, the challenge becomes finding pictures (“art”) to supplement the story. With a piece like this, tracking down photos from 40 years ago can be a challenge. It’s almost like a scavenger hunt. In the early days of OOIDA, there was no magazine or other organ of record to capture the moments, so we didn’t have anything internally to fall back on. Strike one.

The Dole archives contain thousands of pictures, but unfortunately, we weren’t able to find any of truckers on Capitol Hill. Strike two.

Luckily, we hit a homerun when we reached out to Lou Bernard, the Adult Services coordinator at the Annie Halenbake Ross Library in Lock Haven, PA. Lou was able to round up some photos from the Lock Haven Express of the truck protest that started it all, when a fella by the name of J.W. Edwards (aka “The River Rat”) pulled his rig across the eastbound lanes of Interstate 80 near Lamar, PA.

Edwards’ stunt made national news, and Walter Cronkite himself interviewed him during a segment of The CBS Evening News. That footage actually still exists in the archives at CBS; the only problem is …

The whale

Johnston mentioned seeing the television footage of Edwards, who was also trucking out of the Kansas City area in 1973. Shortly after, he made a run out east, hooked up with The River Rat, and the rest was history.

So how much do you think a two-minute clip of footage from a 1973 interview on The CBS Evening News of Walter Cronkite and a disgruntled trucker would cost to license?

Five grand? Maybe more? We are talking about Cronkite, after all. The most iconic newscaster in American history. That’s gotta be worth something, right?

Try $132 … per second. So a clip of 130 seconds would cost $17,160.

Or roughly $10,000 more than what I made in three semesters as a student-teacher in college.

Sounds crazy, doesn’t it? We thought so, too.

But enough about what we didn’t get. Let’s talk about the story we were able to write. For a new guy coming in, listening to tales of the old days of OOIDA is a bit like being regaled by tales from an age of myths and legends. Dates are vague, and nebulous.

What we’ve done is to try and create as concrete a record as we could of the significant dates and happenings of the early days of the organization. Whenever possible, we’ve interviewed the people who were there (those that are still around, and still remember). We’ve also tried to put the tale of truckers fighting for their rights into the larger context of what was happening in America, and the world, starting in 1973.

We’ve broken the story into two parts – the first of which is our cover story for the May issue of Land Line, which should be landing in your mailbox this week. In Part One, you’ll hear from OOIDA president Jim Johnston, as he shares his recollection of the Association’s early days.

If you’re one of our members who’s been with OOIDA for the long haul, we’d love to hear from you. If you’ve got photos or other memorabilia, let us know. Or bring it with you when we celebrate our 40th Anniversary at The Heart of America trucking show, Oct. 18-19 at the Kansas Speedway in Kansas City, Kan. LL

Greg Grisolano joined Land Line in 2013. He was formerly a reporter for the Joplin Globe. He brings business writing and photography skills to Land Line, and has a passion for finding and telling stories about the people who make up the trucking industry.