HURON – Wally Wenzlaff has known what his life’s path would be ever since he was a little boy growing up on his family’s farm near Humboldt.
“I went to country school and saw semis going by and I just … ever since I was five years old I wanted to be involved with trucks,” he said.
He has done just about everything a fellow can do in the trucking world – driving for companies or individuals, working as an independent, being the boss with an eight-truck fleet and making short runs here and there, and long ones to the West Coast.
Wenzlaff is being honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award today at Wheel Jam on the South Dakota State Fairgrounds.
In that one-room schoolhouse, there were only three kids in his class. A girl one year younger was moved up to Wenzlaff’s grade, so then there were four.
When all the kids went outside to play, Wenzlaff was more intrigued with the trucks rushing by on the highway than he was about playing.
“Highway 16 ran right in front of the schoolhouse and that was the main road east to west across South Dakota,” he said.
His mom and dad “had a pretty good idea” what their young boy was dreaming about. It was solidified when he began riding in semis at age 15. His dad did a lot of cattle trading and also ran a feedlot at their place.
One night a friend named Dave Tschetter came to the farm. He was heading to Belle Fourche to pick up a load of cattle.
“He was tired and wanted me to go along to talk to him,” Wenzlaff said. “So we got out west of the river some place and, anyway, I ended up driving. Dave said, ‘I can’t go no more.’”
The teen who would go on to spend a lot of years behind the wheel of a big rig drove most of the way to Belle Fourche that night.
Wenzlaff started earning a paycheck for driving in the fall of 1969. He had graduated from high school that spring.
By fall, he and a couple of buddies decided they wanted to go to mechanic school in Denver. They attended school half of each day and got part-time jobs that filled the rest of the hours – picking up and delivering freight in the city.
“They were the major mail carrier at that time between Denver and Salt Lake,” he said.
So eventually, they began riding with the semi drivers as they met the other truck coming east from Salt Lake City, swapped tractors, and headed back to Denver.
When his dad got sick and needed an operation the next spring, Wenzlaff returned to Humboldt to plant their crops. At one point, he went to basic training for the Air National Guard. By 1970 or 1971 he was driving for Terrace Park Dairy.
A decade later, Wenzlaff started his own company.
His truck was stolen in Los Angeles one night, so he bought another one to replace it. About a year later, law enforcement authorities told him the stolen truck had been located in Michigan. He bought it back from the insurance company.
“I had two of them all of a sudden and really didn’t know what to do with them,” he said. “And I just started running to Seattle some.”
A friend solved his problem when he came to work for Wenzlaff. He drove the route to Los Angeles, and Wenzlaff ran the Seattle route.
“At one time I had eight (trucks) of my own,” he said. Three good, dependable drivers kept three of them on the road.
Wenzlaff sold out in 2005 with plans to retire. It lasted all of three months. For the last four years, he’s been driving for Vernon “Pete” Petersen, last year’s recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award at Wheel Jam.
For a number of years, Wenzlaff didn’t drive full time, but took over the 1,200-acre family farm for his dad.
When he’s behind the wheel, he never finds it tedious or dull.
“No, it’s not boring. There’s always somebody trying to mess with you,” he said with a laugh.
He remembers the 1970s fondly when he and two others his age made regular runs to California.
“We were all in our 20s and ten feet tall and bullet proof,” Wenzlaff said.
He bought his first brand-new truck in the fall of 1977. He had a major accident in 1979. He once ran over a cow in Nebraska.
Oh, a lot of strange things have happened to truck drivers with a million or more miles under their belt.
“It’s just the way stuff goes, and a lot of it is unbelievable,” Wenzlaff said. “A lot of it wouldn’t look good in print, anyway.
“I’ve done a lot of stupid mistakes, but overall the trucking business has been good to me,” he said.
He’s also been luckier than other long-haul drivers in that he has been home for his kids most of the time.
His two boys and one girl are grown and on their own, and Wenzlaff also has three grandchildren to spoil.
When his oldest son was young, he was gone a lot, but by the time the boy was six or seven, Wenzlaff was home running the farm and only taking trucking jobs here and there. One was a run to Salt Lake City when the regular driver decided to quit.
He has worked hard and invested in land along his journey.
“I’ve got to say I have done what I’ve wanted to do since I was five years old,” Wenzlaff said.
Does he still see those big rigs in his mind as they rush by on Highway 16, perhaps hitting their air horns and waving to a little boy who is waving back?
“Oh, yeah,” he said with a smile. “Yeah. Always will.”