The first 10 years Michael Zanella drove over-the-road, he enjoyed stopping at a “nice little friendly truck stop, a real country truck stop” where at least one waitress’s mother and grandmother had both worked before her.
Now this truck stop is renamed in his honor as the TA Hebron [Ohio] Michael Eugene Zanella Travel Center, part of the process for professional truck drivers who are named TravelCenters of America/Petro Stopping Centers Citizen Driver Award winners.
The renaming ceremony was held at the end of May and “without a doubt, was the high point of my life,” Zanella told The Trucker. “It doesn’t get any better than this. There’s nothing better unless you win the lottery. TA spared no expense. They went first class on everything” including a big cake and cooking his favorite meal, a sirloin steak dinner.
He has since received letters about his award and “I was really humbled that somebody wanted my autograph,” he said.
Zanella’s 2016 award made the third time he had entered the competition. He was nominated by his fiancé, Maria Persuhn. They were introduced six years ago by mutual friends; he’s a widower and she’s a widow.
The 57-year-old Zanella drives for Pizza Hut, where he has won various driving awards. He’s also a lifetime member of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, a member of the Disabled American Veterans, the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Marine Corps League, and other community and veterans’ groups. He also hauls scrap metal from time to time.
Zanella was born in the small mining community of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, but has lived in Columbus, Ohio, for the past 30 years. He said he and his fiancé share the same values: “working for what you get” and for her, staying home and taking care of the house and for him, being “a good provider.”
He was a Sergeant-At-Arms in the Marines and served in Iran, Oman and the Persian Gulf and had the hearing in his left ear damaged from an explosion in a training maneuver.
Zanella observes that as badly as truck drivers sometimes are treated, “veterans have it just as bad,” especially the Vietnam vets.
He comes from a family of veterans and said vets from World War 1 and II and Korea were treated decently but not “Vietnam and going forward. … Times change.”
He drove heavy vehicles in the military from 1978 to 1984, and decided he’d like to drive a truck when he returned to civilian life.
“I was a coal miner right out of high school,” he said. Then “there was a wild cat strike,” closing the mine, so he joined the service, eventually traveling to 36 different countries.
“It’s hard for a family when the guy is gone all the time whether in the military or a truck, but somebody has to pay the bills,” he said.
That trucking has changed since Zanella started driving, is an understatement.
“I was told by a trainer that they wanted to put a camera in drivers’ faces 24/7. Fortunately I’ve never had to deal with that. I’m law abiding; I never needed that,” he said.
Two of his biggest pet peeves are foreign-born drivers who can’t read English well enough to read the road signs and the way truck drivers are sometimes treated.
“Every time I hear a news story” about trucking, he said, “they’re blaming trucks for something. The media doesn’t do us any favors.” He added that the Citizen Driver Award program “has raised the image of the truck driver.”
Zanella also decries the attitude of young people who think they are “entitled” to things without working for them.
“You earn by serving your country,” he said. “My unit lost many in Beirut; I blocked some of it out for awhile” but “I’m glad I volunteered. My values are good family values [and] military service.”