He’s still able to handle the big rigs, but after 62 years behind the wheel, Stewart Scherf didn’t want to face another winter on the road and retired on his 81st birthday . . . maybe
Stewart Scherf has seen it all — women putting on makeup while driving, men eating lunch behind the wheel, drivers texting, reading the newspaper and doing things that can’t be mentioned in polite company. That’s no surprise, not after 62 years as a truck driver. But now Scherf, who has driven semis hauling everything from beer and gasoline to coils of steel since graduating from high school, is done with the crazy drivers and difficult winters.
On Friday, Jan. 9 — his 81st birthday — Scherf retired from Greatwide Dedicated Transport.
“I love trucking, but 62 winters is enough,” he said while standing in the Greatwide yard in Saukville next to the semi he used to haul steel from the Charter Steel foundry next door.
“There’s a lot more traffic on the roads these days and a lot more crazy drivers. Believe me, I’ve seen it all.”
Scherf can’t tell you how many miles he has driven during his career but said he was putting on about 100,000 miles a year when he was an over-the-road trucker.
“It was a lot of miles, that’s for sure,” he said.
For much of his career, Scherf was a local driver, putting in long hours on the road but returning to his Town of Saukville home at night. Most recently, he was delivering steel from Charter Steel to Geneva, Ill., and South Chicago.
“Finally I said I only want to do one run a day,” he said. “Making that run twice in a day is tough.”
But Scherf liked over-the-road, or long-haul, trucking the best.
“I drove all over the place, running 10 to 15 states. I loved it because you got to see the country, and once you left the yard, you were your own boss,” he said. “But things changed. There’s no more home cooking on the road anymore, just fast food crap, pardon my French.”
Scherf got his start in trucking when he was 18, but his interest in a life behind the wheel of a semi was piqued long before that.
“When I was in grade school, my uncle Albert asked me if I wanted to go with him to Milwaukee to pick up a load of beer,” he said. “I remember thinking to myself, ‘How can someone drive such a big truck?’ Funny, that’s what I ended up doing for 62 years.”
Scherf grew up in Cedarburg and graduated in 1953 from Cedarburg High School, where he was a standout athlete.
Scherf was hired by Emil Wetzler, a local Blatz beer distributor.
“I started driving a pickup, then a straight truck, then a semi, all in the same year,” he said.
His civilian truck-driving career was put on hold in 1956 when he joined the U.S. Army. Although stationed in Germany, Scherf wound up in a familiar place — behind the wheel of a truck — a fuel tanker.
In 1958 he returned home, took a job as a truck driver with Federal Foods in Thiensville and was an over-the-road trucker for 10 years.
Although Scherf, the father of four, liked the runs that would take him to states throughout the Midwest and beyond for three or four days at a time, it was hard on his home life.
“I’d get home and my wife would expect me to deal with the kids, but they kind of looked at me like, ‘Who is this guy?’” he said.
So Scherf found a job at Tri-Par Oil Co. that kept him closer to home. Although hauling thousands of gallons of flammable gasoline weighed on his mind, Scherf said, he liked the work and the people, which is why he stayed at the company for 32 years.
“I’ve hauled just about everything, and some loads are easier than others,” he said. “If you’re hauling steel coils on the floor (of a flatbed trailer), you have to strap all that down. When I was hauling for Tri-Par, all you had to do was stick a hose in the ground.”
But it was while driving a gasoline tanker that Scherf had one of his most hair-raising experiences on the road. Just outside Newburg, an oncoming car crossed the center line headed directly for Scherf’s semi.
“In trying to avoid her, I went off the road,” he said. “Then in order to miss a telephone pole, I had to take my whole load into a farm field.”
When Scherf turned 65, he retired from trucking, but that didn’t last long — four months to be exact.
“I thought I was ready to retire, but I missed driving so much I had to go back to work,” he said.
He took a job with the company that eventually became Greatwide and started hauling steel for a living.
Scherf has mostly fond memories of his 62 years behind the wheel, but winter driving is the stuff of nightmares for truckers.
“Indiana was the worst,” he said. “They didn’t take care of their roads. I’d see three, four trucks in the ditch and just pull over and wait for the salt shaker to come through.”
He also remembers a time when driving an 18-wheeler was simpler.
“Years ago, you had a log book, and you could jimmy that a little bit,” he said. “Now everything is electronic. Every six to eight hours, you have to pull over and take a break. If you don’t, you get written up, and you get two or three of those and all of a sudden you’re looking for a new job.
“One time I almost made it home when I hit my limit and had to spend the night in Hustisford.”
A good attitude and a little humor goes a long way in the trucking industry, said Scherf, whose nickname is Old Whippersnapper.
“I’m kind of a jokester,” he said.
But his second retirement is no joke. Scherf said at age 81, it’s time to stay retired, although he’s not sure how his wife Louise feels about having him home full time.
“I don’t know if she’s real excited because now she’ll have to find stuff for me to do,” he said. “I think that list is pretty long already.”
Scherf is looking forward to some time behind the wheel of his garden tractor, and is not closing the door completely on the possibility of occasionally getting behind the wheel of a truck again.
“I got two jobs people want to hire me for, but any driving I do will be on a strictly part-time basis,” said Scherf, whose commercial driver’s license doesn’t expire until 2017.
“I liked every company I worked for,” he said. “I loved everything about truck driving — everything except the winters and the crazy drivers.”
Photo By Bill Schanen IV