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In March, when the coronavirus pandemic transformed bustling metropolitan areas into deserted ghost towns as people hunkered down in apprehension, Susan Dawson recognized an opportunity to serve.
Dawson, 57, drives for Brenny Specialized Inc., a trucking company based in St. Joseph, Minn., some 75 miles northwest of Minneapolis. Over the past several months, Dawson has been hauling a combination of sanitation supplies that have been in high demand during the pandemic and regular freight that she would ordinarily move during her over-the-road dispatches.
She has gone all over, crisscrossing from Washington to Boston to Florida. Dawson has delivered hand sanitizer to Houston and, when she spoke to Transport Topics during a stop in Dallas, she was carrying a load of fire extinguisher ingredients bound for Allentown, Pa.
During the height of the outbreak in the Northeast, Dawson delivered water in New Jersey and picked up a load of batteries in New York City the following day. She spent the night in her truck, which she parked behind a building in New Jersey, remaining cautious and safe in what was then the epicenter of the pandemic.
“I never really ran into any danger, but I can tell you, my eyeballs were the size of 50-cent pieces,” Dawson said. “It was an eerie feeling, needless to say. It kind of reminded me I wouldn’t want to be the last person on Earth.”
As an over-the-road truck driver, home time is precious for Dawson, who lives in Indianapolis, which is 660 miles from her company’s headquarters but close to her siblings, nephews and cousins. When the pandemic started to rapidly sweep the country in late March, Dawson decided to forgo the home time she had previously booked so she could continue trucking.
“We were extremely busy when all this started. However, we wouldn’t have denied her home time,” said Joyce Brenny, founder and CEO of Brenny Transportation and Brenny Specialized Inc. “We were very, very leery of how we were going to get that load out [to New York City] with everything going on. She said ‘I can take it.’ She does not let fear be her ruler.”
Brenny said the average driver at her company logs 8,000 to 10,000 miles a month. In May, Dawson covered 13,000 miles.
Dawson said her decision to skip her home time and continue working was rooted in a sense of duty and teamwork.
“I was not abandoning ship,” Dawson said. “I just wanted to keep doing what everybody else was doing. My country needed all of us drivers out here and the way things happened so very fast, it was actually scary.”
Dawson ultimately made it home for a few days in June. She doesn’t plan to return again until the holidays, although she may “sneak in around September.”
Growing up three blocks away from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Dawson developed a love of vehicles at an early age. The whir of the race cars was her soundtrack and, when she was old enough, she worked at the track, selling newspapers, hot dogs, ice and beer.
Through one means or another, Dawson has always moved freight. She started her career loading and unloading airplanes. This work led her to the moving industry, where she packed up belongings from people’s houses, loaded them into trucks and delivered them. She eventually earned her commercial driver license and became an owner-operator. After about 15 years in the moving industry, Dawson transitioned to hauling refrigerated freight.
Although Dawson has been with Brenny Transportation for just over a year, she’s been driving for 32 years. Dawson said she has worked for a few different companies, but none of them quite clicked with her the way Brenny has. When Dawson first met Brenny Transportation representatives at the Mid-America Trucking Show, neither she nor the Brenny team expected to form a connection. Dawson was there to talk to people and pick up some new pens and pencils. Brenny and her colleagues were there to display an old truck. Dawson said God led her to them. Brenny said the universe aligned.
“I have never, ever in my life met a company such as Brenny Specialized out of St. Joseph, Minn.,” Dawson said. “These people are about their work. They’re solid. It’s all in capital letters for me for these people.”
Driving cross-country has allowed Dawson to see new places and try all sorts of cuisine, from lasagna in New York City to cod in Washington, clam chowder in Boston to shrimp scampi in the Florida Keys. During the pandemic, Dawson said she’s been able to shop at Walmart to keep her in-cab refrigerator stocked.
Some drivers refuse to make runs to certain places that are hard to maneuver in, such as New York City. Some won’t cross the Mississippi River. Dawson isn’t picky about where she’s sent.
“They’ll say, ‘Where do you want to go?’ and I’ll say, ‘Shuffle the deck,’ ” Dawson said. “Whatever comes out of it is where I go. You’ve got to be flexible for these companies. It’s a new adventure.”
Outside of trucking, Dawson enjoys swimming, outdoor activities and playing her guitar. She said the bathroom is the best place for strumming Beatles tunes because the acoustics are particularly good. When she’s home, she takes advantage of the opportunity to go to the store for ingredients and experiments with different recipes.
Sarah Wischnefski, public relations director at Brenny Transportation, said Dawson’s “servant heart” extends beyond hauling freight. It was Wischnefski who nominated Dawson for recognition as a Trucking Frontline Hero. She said Dawson has supported organizations such as Truckers Against Trafficking and charities such as the St. Christopher Truckers Relief Fund, a charity that helps injured truckers and their families.
“She’s always looking to help serve wherever it needs to be done,” Wischnefski said. “She’s very selfless. She puts everybody else’s needs in front of her own, which in turn on the road keeps everybody else out there extremely safe.”
Dawson said she tries to translate her Christian values into her interactions with friends and strangers. Oftentimes, that attitude is reflected in how she treats other drivers. She said she recently met a driver who was stuck with a messy trailer; movers had left pads, straps and decking bars strewn from “front to tail” inside the trailer. Dawson helped her fold the pads, wrap up the straps and re-deck the bars, a process that took over an hour.
Recently, Dawson said she’s been encouraged to see a return to the “old school of trucking” among her fellow drivers. She said people are looking out for each other more, helping one another back their trailers into docks.
“Lately, it seems like everybody’s picking up the pace and getting back on board with being the old-school truck driver,” Dawson said. “Oddly enough, I think it has something to do with the coronavirus and the world shutting down. I think it put some kind of light in some people. We don’t see anybody anywhere, so let’s start getting back with truck drivers here and helping one another out.”
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