by CHRIS ROGERS
Louise Spencer’s voice is soft and kind, and her words come out with a slight Southern drawl. But the truck she stepped into last Friday growled deeply when she turned the ignition, and it let out a fierce hiss as its air brakes disengaged.
It is just a week and a half from Spencer’s 92nd birthday and she is driving an 18-wheel semi-truck for the first time. She is not nervous.
A nonprofit aimed at helping seniors cross items from their bucket list hooked Spencer, a Twin Cities resident, up with the truck driving program at Minnesota State College Southeast (MSC Southeast) — formerly Southeast Tech — in Winona. Spencer rolled up in a her candy red Nitro brand walker, and, with minimal help, clambered up into the cab of the big rig. In a calm, steady voice, truck driving instructor Tom Gierok showed her all the switches and valves for the trailer’s brakes. Most of Gierok’s students are age 18 to 65. He once taught a husband-wife duo in their early 70s. Spencer takes the cake as his oldest student ever, but do not underestimate her.
“She’s pretty gutsy,” said Wanda McCarra, one of Spencer’s daughters. “Everybody sees her as this sweet old lady, but she’s a firecracker. She’s got a very gentle appearance, but she’s pretty determined.”
Back in her home state of Mississippi, Spencer taught herself to paint at age 50 and started a craft store. Until just recently, she still gardened, cooked, entertained, and hosted church groups. “There’s really not anything she chooses to do that she doesn’t do,” McCarra added.
Spencer had a few jerky starts, but she caught on quickly. Out at MSC Southeast’s driving course, she fired up the truck, pulled away, and sped around a corner. “I’m surprised she didn’t burn rubber,” joked Webb Weiman, the California television professional whose nonprofit, Jump!, helped organize the event. Jokes aside, Spencer did well, and stopped smoothly at the end of her run. “It was really nice,” she said. “My problem was getting familiar with the gas pedal.” It was harder than driving a car, but pretty fun, she added. When MSC Southeast President Dorothy gave her an honorary truck driving certificate, Spencer said, “I can’t believe this. Does this mean I have a job?”
Spencer’s late husband drove lumber trucks for years. She rode along with him a few times, and — though she hoped nothing bad would ever happen — sometimes fantasized about how, if something happened, she might have to take over and drive the big truck, her daughters said. Perhaps that is how driving an 18-wheeler wound up on Spencer’s bucket list.
Spencer never confided her long-held wish to her two daughters, but when Weiman visited her St. Anthony, Minn., senior living community and asked everyone to name the things they want to do before they die, driving truck was Spencer’s answer.
“I don’t know why these dreams come, but my husband was a truck driver and I always wanted to drive truck,” she said.
“My jaw just dropped. She’s kind of honoring [her late husband’s] memory. She’s fulfilling something she always wanted to do,” Weiman said. He latched onto the idea and decided Jump! needed to fulfill Spencer’s wish.
Weiman started calling around to find places in Minnesota where Spencer could drive a truck. When he spoke with Gierok, Weiman knew MSC Southeast was the place to go. “You could not meet a nicer guy than this guy. From the moment we got on the phone, I thought I need him to be part of this story.”
“I didn’t even hesitate,” Gierok said. He told Weiman, “Absolutely. Let’s do this.”
On the big day, Gierok had a special surprise for Louise. Just below the driver’s door window, he attached a pink decal with Louise’s name spelled out in a stylish script. She was wowed.
“Wow, if at almost 92 you are stepping forward and checking something off your bucket list, what about me?” reflected Katie Westberg, a representative of the senior living community where Spencer lives.
Gierok went out of his way to make Spencer’s dream come true. “None of this would happen without his enthusiasm,” Weiman said. Gierok helped line up hotel rooms and gift baskets for her. He secured a truck with an automatic transmission from Riverland Trucking, and Spencer seemed to think he was a good teacher, too. “He’s such a nice fella,” Spencer stated.
"Anytime you can be part of somebody’s wish — who could ask for more?’ Gierok said.