Million-mile trucker logs 40th year in instructor's role

Million-mile trucker logs 40th year in instructor's role

SMITHFIELD - It's not your usual classroom, considering that its major components aren't 18 desks and a blackboard, but 18 wheels and a 500-horsepower engine.

And then there's the teacher: a mustachioed Vietnam combat veteran whose lectures include tips on how to back up a rig that's 55 feet long and can weigh 80,000 pounds fully loaded.

Oh, and another important lesson: Don't believe everything you hear about truck stops having the best food.

That's the course syllabus according to "professor" Ed Mowry, a one-time cross-country truck driver who's observing his 40th year at Smithfield's Nationwide Tractor Trailer Driving School on George Washington Highway, where he's director of training.

Mowry, 61 and a native of Cumberland who now lives in Norton, Mass., estimates he's driven trucks more than a million miles across America, through snow, rain and dust.

"I've seen a lot of asphalt," he says.

These days, Mowry considers motorists who text or talk on cell phones as major hazards for the truck driver.

He teaches his students a trade that can lurch from excitement to solitude, with the reward being that out on the highway, 'You're your own boss."

Also, he says, in an economy where many people are out of work, the trucking industry needs thousands of qualified drivers who average $50,000 to $60,000 a year or more.

He believes the eight to 10 weeks of training, at a tuition of $5,295, is an investment as solid as the trucks themselves.

Apparently, so do others: He says that among his students have been jobless lawyers, accountants, plumbers, carpenters, and - even though driving isn't rocket science - a nuclear physicist.

Truck driving isn't just a man's occupation, says Mowry, estimating he's taught up to 150 women among his thousands of students and that behind the wheel, "They're as good as men."

Mowry's sharp eyes have done more than keep him accident-free over the years; in fact, they spotted a suspected terrorist in 2007, right at the driving school.

He became suspicious when an unusually well dressed student from India wanted to learn only how to drive a truck forward, showing little interest in the more difficult skill of backing it up. Plus, Mowry said, the 28-year-old seemed unusually inquisitive about the transport of hazardous materials.

Mowry and then-company president Darleen Crawford reported his suspicious behavior, a move that resulted in the student's arrest on an immigration violation and his eventual deportation.

Mowry, who was drafted at 18 when he graduated from Cumberland High, learned truck driving by working for a local firm as a teenager.

After working elsewhere for a time when he left the military, he joined Nationwide in 1973 and has been there ever since, teaching wannabe drivers how to operate trucks of several sizes.

They begin on the school's 5.5 acres, later moving to industrial parks and then public highways.

Nationwide, founded in 1969 by Crawford's late father, John R. McCarthy, is owned today by Peter and Sharon Sawyer.

Peter Sawyer says that Mowry's success as a teacher comes from his ability to connect with students no matter what their background, and "He never takes a day off."

When he's not at the school, Mowry deals with another job in which trucks play a major role - he's a call fireman in Norton, where, as essentially a paid volunteer, he holds the rank of captain.

Mowry says that some of his driving students take jobs working for others, while some invest in tractors so they can be their own bosses.

The cabs range in price from $80,000 to $160,000, he says, and can get pretty fancy, with bunk beds, air conditioning and hardwood floors "just like in your own living room."

As for self-designated truck stops, he says, they aren't necessarily barometers of quality food and he prefers "mom and pop" eateries.

Shun the greasy spoons, he says - that kind of food makes you sleepy.

To combat the boredom that can be part of a truck driver's life, he advises keeping the cab cool to avoid drowsiness, the CB radio on for its snappy conversation, and listening to music as long as it's strictly country-western.

For someone who's seen combat, rolling down a highway beside a novice at the controls of an 18-wheeler isn't much of an issue, he says.

And, he notes dryly, it doesn't hurt that the school's vehicles have dual braking systems.