Six months past cancer surgery and nine days shy of her 92nd birthday, Louise Spencer pushed her walker up to the door of the 18-wheeler. She scampered up into the cab — on her own, eschewing the offers of help from onlookers — and plopped down in the driver’s seat behind the giant steering wheel.
“It’s bigger than I am,” she said. She listened carefully as Tom Gierok, an instructor in the truck driving program at Minnesota State College Southeast, explained what all the switches, levers and gauges were for. She started the truck, eased it into gear, turned to Gierok and announced, “I have a heavy foot.”
Then Spencer — who gave up her driver’s license 10 years ago — pulled the big rig out of its parking spot. She was crossing an item off her bucket list — driving a semi. In the process, she also was becoming something of a legend at the Chandler Place assisted-living center in St. Anthony.
“She has become a hero to her whole community,” said Robyn Johnson, director of brand for the Goodman Group, which manages the center, shortly before Spencer was honored at a gathering in the dining hall. Spencer was flattered by all the attention. “It makes me humble,” she told her fellow residents
She was finally getting a chance to address decades of lingering curiosity. Spencer’s late husband, Leo White, spent 30 years behind the wheel of a semi. At first she had stayed home to tend to their family — “four kids in 4½ years,” she said. But after the couple became empty-nesters, she — and their two poodles — would often ride along with him.
“I would wonder: If something happened to him [while they were on the road], could I jump in and drive the truck?” she said. “Fortunately, I never had to find out. But now I know I could have.”
To be fair, she conceded, the truck she used was markedly different from the one her husband drove 50 years ago. This one had power steering and an automatic transmission. And she could communicate with Gierok while she was driving. When she rode with her husband, the engine noise was so loud that “if I wanted to talk with him, I had to crawl into the sleeper compartment” directly behind him.
There was another difference, as well: The truck seemed a lot bigger and the road looked a lot smaller from the driver’s seat than it had from the passenger seat. “I couldn’t help but think about how big it was,” she said of the 53-foot-long trailer.
“And the roads were so narrow.”
She successfully navigated around a closed training course, with Gierok only once needing to tell her to slow down as she approached a curve. “I didn’t hit anything,” she bragged. “At least, I don’t think I did. And I backed it up — can you believe it?”
Spencer didn’t set out to drive the semi. Chandler Place was hosting an appearance by Webb Weiman, founder of a California-based organization called Jump that encourages seniors to remain active. She showed up for the meeting late. “I took a seat in the back,” she said. “I figured he wouldn’t see me. But he came up to me, asked me my name and asked if I had anything on my bucket list. I said that I wanted to drive an 18-wheeler, and Webb dropped his jaw. He said, ‘Are you sure?’ When I said yes, he said, ‘Well, we’ll see what we can do.’
“I didn’t think much would come of it,” she admitted. “But a few days later, I got a call inviting me to go to Winona,” the location of the truck driving classes. She was a bit nervous as she approached the truck, but once she got in the cab, adrenaline took over.
“It was all very exciting,” she said. “I didn’t calm down until I went to bed.”
Now she figures that she should put her training to use. “I’ve offered to drive the [assisted-living center’s] bus,” she said with an impish smile.