Forty-four-year career driver Denis Litalien says that “I have to have something to do; I can’t sit still.”
So much so that as a youngster his mother told him he had “an over-active fidget gland.”
The 2016 Citizen Driver Award winner credits that as one of the reasons why he’s become involved in so many charities, community projects and safety programs over the years, including but not limited to the Trucking for Kids Convoy; the Northeast Professional Truck Drivers Charity Challenge for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital; the American Lung Association; United Way; the Truckers/Troopers Program and state and national truck driving championships.
And although he loves the St. Jude cause with a passion, there’s another charity also close to Litalien’s heart: Camp Sunshine in his home state of Maine (Biddeford) for children with critical illnesses and their families. Each year at Scarborough Downs Litalien and other truck drivers hold a truck show, truck beauty contest and drive to raise money for the camp so that these children who require around-the-clock medical attention and their family caregivers can take a break.
“Once you visit the camp and meet the families and kids you realize you can’t do enough for them,” says Litalien, who got interested in the camp through a Lion’s Club in South Portland.
The other reason for his involvement is that when he started driving a truck he became interested in everything to do with trucking and presenting the industry in a positive light: “Once I got involved I wanted to do what I could to improve things for truck drivers, improve their safety and image. It was an internal quest … .”
When The Trucker caught up with Litalien he was near Boston and had a load of dry groceries to deliver to a supermarket in Quincy, Massachusetts. So while as a truck driver Litalien doesn’t have the time non-truckers do for charity work, “I think it’s a matter of prioritizing your schedule,” he says. “I feel blessed to be in this business. I have a job that pays me very well and although I don’t have a lot of time to give back I want to make sure I give back, [and] that positively reflects back on a profession that has done so much for me … .”
Litalien was nominated for TravelCenters of America’s annual Citizen Driver Award by his friend and fellow Citizen Driver Award-winner Rob Fernald.
“At first I tried to decline the nomination,” says Litalien. “I told him I had a great career and had been recognized for a number of things (among them the National Truck Driving Championship Professional Excellence Award in 2012). This is over the top. I don’t need to be recognized anymore.”
“Yes you do,” Fernald told him.
So Litalien relented.
As does every Citizen Driver Award winner, Litalien got to choose the TA/Petro he wanted renamed in his honor and chose the TA in Greenland, New Hampshire, just across the border from Maine.
Since it was close to a Nike distribution location, Litalien had gotten to know the truck stop well when he was delivering sports shoes for the well-known brand. In fact, he says he carried a load of Nike’s first Air Jordans after they debuted in 1984.
That TA was such a regular stop that Litalien had regular breakfast meetings there with other truck drivers. “Everybody had a CB back then and I got to know the people that ran the same stretch of road. … Those breakfast meetings turned into relationships that went past trucking and professional friends. We created the Maine Professional Drivers Association [after] we kept saying ‘somebody ought to do this, somebody ought to do that.’ We started the organization that did those things … .”
The Greenland TA had learned what Litalien’s favorite food was: Lobster rolls, and that plus an appearance by Truckload Carriers Association’s Highway Angel spokesperson and country artist Lindsay Lawler, other entertainment and attendance of his close family and friends made the renaming ceremony special, he says.
In fact, “That was a day like nothing else other than my wedding and my daughter’s birth,” he recalls. “TA could not have done a better job of making me and my wife Debbie feel special. … There had never been the opportunity to bring together so many of my friends involved in activities that I’m involved with.”
Why wouldn’t you want to give back to a career like trucking he asks.
“It’s just been a great ride my whole career and I’ve been lucky enough to be associated with good people. The good Lord has blessed me with my health, I’ve had a great family, great career. … I have to pay a debt of gratitude; it helps balance the scales.”