On the Road for 64 Years: Don Henderson’s Story
By LYDIA BERGLAR
Dade County resident Don Henderson retired from driving for Greyhound Bus at the age of 59. He retired a second time 31 years later, this time from driving trucks. He had 64 total years of commercial driving under his belt when he retired at the age of 90. For Don, the road was his home away from home, and driving kept him young.
From picking cotton on his family’s farm during the Great Depression to serving in the army at the very end of World War II to working in a copper mine in Arizona, driving was by far Don’s favorite experience.
In his words, “Since I learned to drive, I just wanted to be a driver. When I got out of the army, I went from job to job, but I just wasn’t satisfied. The last job I had before I started driving was at Boeing Aircraft in Seattle, Wash. Our crew would divide up the newspaper during the lunch hour. One day, I ended up with the wanted ads. I saw that Greyhound was taking applications for drivers, so I clocked out right then and put my application in with Greyhound.”
Don drove for Greyhound for just under 34 years. He began driving in the northwest region of the United States before deciding to move home. “I was 3,000 miles away from where my family was, and I wanted to come back home to my roots,” he said.
A native Alabamian, Don was raised on a farm in Bryant, Ala. His wife, Ruth, was raised just a mile or so away from the Henderson family. Ruth explained, “I was born in 1935, and he was born in December 1926. I knew his family, and I graduated with his brother, but I didn’t really know Don.”
Both Ruth and Don lost their first spouses. They eventually connected with each other once Don moved back to the tri-state area. Ruth recalls, “His brother prayed that we’d get together, and I told him to keep his prayers to himself!” The couple has been married for 33 years now.
They met many years into Don’s driving career. Ruth said, “When I married him, he told me, ‘Well you know I’m going to keep working.’ I said that’s a good thing, but I got a little bit tired of being by myself. I never knew what time he’d get home. But it was okay. I wish he could do it now because it made him happy.”
When driving with Greyhound, Don mostly stayed in the southeast. “The only time you drove cross country is if you were on a charter bus. One time, I took Baylor School all the way out to Los Angeles, Calif., but usually, you stayed in the area that you drove in.”
Once he switched from buses to semi trucks and other large vehicles, Don experienced much more of the United States. “Every state has its own beauty,” he said, “but I like the southwest. I lived in New Mexico and Arizona for a while, but this was home.”
Don began driving trucks when he was furloughed from Greyhound. Eventually, he retired from Greyhound to join a friend in a venture to buy an 18-wheeler. After several years of that venture, he began driving for Tennessee Trucks. In addition to delivering products, he often delivered trucks and other large vehicles.
“I believe working and staying active is what kept me going,” said Don. “I loved being out there on the road, seeing the country. Guys at the shop would ask, ‘Why don’t you quit?’ I’d say, ‘Well what would I do? Sit around?’ like I’m doing mostly now. I was 59 when I retired from Greyhound, but that was too young to just sit around.”
Don would have continued driving if it’d been up to him. He explained, “They told me they didn’t know how much longer the company was going to keep insuring me on account of my age, so rather than them telling me they don’t need me anymore, I quit on my own. I was 90.”
Don never was content to stick with jobs he disliked. “I once worked in a copper mine in Arizona. I rode an elevator 2,900 feet down, then rode a little train about a half a mile out to my work station. A big boulder fell about three feet from me one time when I was working all by myself. The only light I had was on my helmet. I finished that shift and never went back in the mine. I said, ‘Somebody’s gotta do this job, but not me.’”
In talking with Don, it’s apparent that different people are made for different jobs, and it’s a good thing that not everyone wants to do the same job. He recalled, “One of the other bus drivers was complaining once, and I said, ‘If you dislike it, why don’t you quit? Nobody’s making you stay here.’ They say if you like your job, you never work a day in your life.”
The Henderson family had 12 children in total. Don’s six brothers and five sisters took a variety of paths through life. “Daddy wanted us to be farmers, but we couldn’t wait to get away from the farm up here at Bryant. None of us had the same job.”
One of his brothers was a policeman at the White House. Don recalled, “I was up there visiting him one time, and I told him I would not trade jobs with him. When he came home and people knew he worked at the White House, they were impressed.”
Other jobs in the Henderson family included working for General Motors, for the Potomac Power Board, and preaching. “Then there was me, a lowly truck driver,” Don laughed.
Over the years, Don saw the road systems change as interstates were put in. “There weren’t any interstates back then. I was on two and some four lane highways, but it wasn’t near like it is now. When the interstate highways were put in, I didn’t have to go through all the small towns.”
“When I first started driving a bus, if somebody flagged you on the highway, you’d stop and pick them up. If somebody wanted off on the highway, you’d let them off. But after the interstates came in, you couldn’t pick up and let off on the interstates.”
Other changes include the price of vehicles. Don purchased his first car at 17 years old. “I paid $195 for a used 1934 Ford,” he said proudly.
One thing that hasn’t changed? Atlanta traffic. According to Don, “Atlanta traffic has always been bad, from Marietta on into Atlanta.”
Ruth occasionally traveled with Don when he was driving, especially if it was somewhere she wanted to visit. Ruth added, “It’s hard to drive with a professional driver, because he wants everybody to drive like he does.”
Don said, “Truck drivers have to be safe drivers. I wish all drivers had to drive a truck so they’d know what we have to put up with, like unruly drivers. I’ve had them dash in front of me and put their brakes on.”
Now 96 years old, Don says, “If I could, I’d still be out there.”
I worked with Don at Tennessee Trucks. We made a trip to Niagara, NY. in 1997/98. I loved traveling with Don and I learned so much from him.
Thanks for sharing, Paul!