Faces of Trucking: Tom

There are over 3.5 million truckers in America, and 3.5 million great trucking stories. This one is about Tom, check it out!

Thomas G. Shinn, Jr. is the quintessential trucker. No contest. If ever there was a poster boy for this way of life, it's Tom.

Of course, that poster would have to be at least 7 feet tall, since Tom is 6-feet-8. Luckily, he hasn't had to climb in and out of Ford Fiestas for a living. Big rigs are the perfect ride for big dudes. And for nearly 40 years—and 5.5 million miles—that ride has been life's greatest adventure.

"Trucking is something beautiful," says Tom, 61, who has lived most of his life in Taylor, Michigan, a Detroit suburb.

"You can go anywhere in the country and see how beautiful it is. You can take the two-lane highways—life doesn't need to be in a rush. I tell people it's like being on vacation. You get to see different parts of the country, how people live. You just get to see life, experience traveling. You're going somewhere new every day."

From watermelons and potatoes to automobiles and NASCAR tires, he's hauled it all, and loved it all. "My love for trucks has been there all my life," Tom says.

He's not kidding. When Tom was just 12, his father, a trucker for 51 years, taught him to drive a semi out at Willow Run Airport and Detroit Metro Airport. Of course, that was back when you could get away with stuff like that.

"We were delivering freight," Tom recalls. "At first, I didn't know how to synchronize the gears. I found out you start learning that when you back up. I loved it."

From then on, it was trucks. Tom starting riding in semis with a variety of drivers in high school. His uncle, also a trucker, drove down South for those watermelons, taking his nephew along. "We had to load and unload them by hand," Tom says.

Meanwhile, Tom was no slouch in school. He was All State in basketball at Taylor Central High School. He attended Western Kentucky University on a full scholarship, got hurt, came back to Michigan and eventually earned his bachelor's degree in science from Hillsdale College in 1981.

He taught high school for two years after that, but "I hated it," he says bluntly. Given his lust for truck driving, that's no surprise. In fact, he was trucking the entire time, scholarship and teaching notwithstanding.

He joined the U.S. Army after his teaching stint because, he says, "it's what a man was supposed to do."

After his Army service, which took him to Germany, it was back to trucking for the next three decades. Tom bought his first semi in his 30s. It was a Freightliner flathead. It was worth about $40,000 because it was fairly new. A dear family friend was losing his battle with cancer, and wanted to give Tom a break; he charged just $3,500. Tom never has forgotten that.

And he has built upon it. He has been an owner-operator for many years, and loves to talk about the rig as home, so to speak.

"You can make it look good to your own liking, like painting it one solid color, making it comfortable, keeping it clean inside. It's like your house. During the day, it's your office, at night time, it's home."

Tom was married, but is now single. He has three children, two daughters and a son. One of Tom's daughters is 6-feet-3, and, guess what? She runs a trucking company. Tom's son is 6-feet-7. One of his seven grandchildren is 6-feet-2—and he's only 12 years old. 'Bout time to teach that boy how to drive a semi, right?

As for the demands of the career, Tom has some major observations:

One: You never stop learning, and realize you never stop learning—which is to say, you are paying attention every minute. "When you stop fearing that truck, that truck's going to kill you."

Second: "Driving is more mentally than physically tough. You're always on the defense. People don't understand trucks and at any minute, they might stop in front of you on a dime."

Speaking of tough, Tom is facing the hardest route of his career. He has been diagnosed in recent years with three different kinds of cancer. He is getting through 32 rounds of chemotherapy. But that bracelet on his wrist says a lot: "Game on cancer. Hit cancer hard."

The truck driving is on hiatus now, but not forever. Tom can't wait to get back, well, in gear. Meanwhile, he's trucking on in his attitude.

"You gotta stay positive. Life is a blessing."

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