As the joke goes, Martin “Marty” Ellis says he “needed something to do for a weekend, so I started to drive a truck.”
His memories of trucking as a child were nothing more than pumping his arm to get drivers to blow their air horns while traveling down the roadway on a family trip. There was no trucker to look up to in the family or fascination with big rigs. Diesel did not run through his veins.
But trucking was a destined career, one that has immortalized him at the Marty Ellis Rogers Travel Center in Rogers, Minnesota. Ellis is one of five Citizen Driver honorees by the TravelCenters of America and Petro Stopping Centers. Ellis was honored with having a truck stop named after him for his volunteer work and caring spirit for everyone he meets. The program, which started in 2014, shines a light on drivers who make a difference on the road and in the community.
“It’s an amazing honor,” said Ellis, 54, of Carl’s Junction, Missouri. “… Gosh my name is still going to be out there after I kick off.”
Ellis is a company driver, hauling refrigerated freight, mostly meat and ice cream, for A&A Express, based out of Brandon, South Dakota. He drives a 2017 Freightliner Cascadia and gets home “every couple of weeks.” He chose the Minnesota truck stop because it’s the closest to his company’s terminal and one he frequents. Proud of their driver’s accomplishment, the company bussed fellow drivers to the dedication on May 21 as well as members of Ellis’ family who flew in.
“They do a good job for us out here,” he said of A&A Express, adding that he can count on one hand, maybe two, the amount of times throughout his entire 23-year career in trucking with them that he didn’t make it home or where he needed to be.
“It was a relaxed atmosphere when I went to work for them. They made me feel at home on the first day,” Ellis said.
But before that meeting and well before seeing his name emblazoned on a truck stop, he was just the youngest of three children, growing up in Rapid City, South Dakota.
“I never met my father,” Ellis said, adding his parents got divorced when he was little more than a year-old. “My mother did a lot of secretarial work.”
In 1981, right after high school, he joined the U.S. Army but was discharged after less than a year because of medical issues, ending the dream of a military career.
Ellis married his wife Deb 31 years ago, and began working for his father-in-law’s beekeeping business.
“I had never knowingly been stung by a bee before, but I got a crash course in bee keeping really quick.” One night, he was stung at least 100 times — his wife stopped counting after 100. “Some of the time they get pretty ornery,” he said, explaining that the weather was hot that day and “they don’t appreciate being messed with when it’s that hot out.”
“When I first started, it was a big deal for me getting stung once. It’s one of those things. It’s like busting your knuckles while turning wrenches [as a mechanic]; it’s just kind of a hazard of the trade. You suck it up and just get through it,” Ellis said.
His father-in-law taught him how to drive a truck, hauling the bees to San Bernardino, California, from Kimball, South Dakota.
“After I got out of the bees, I ran a bar for about a year and realized that wasn’t for me either. I thought, ‘OK, what can I do with the knowledge I have and the training I have? And I thought well, I could go see about driving a truck.”
A new life
It’s a career that Ellis took the long way to get to, but he’s never looked back, thanks first and foremost to his wife.
“I found a wife that’s really strong, luckily. That’s one thing that’s so important. You have to have a strong woman that’s, the joke goes, willing to pretend you’re in charge,” he said. “You really do need somebody who can handle things when you’re gone and also to feel needed for more than just the paycheck.”
“I get to meet a lot of people. I don’t think I ever have the same day two days in a row. … It gives you freedom, not having a boss looking over your shoulder. I think the freedom has always been one of those things that’s very appealing. But with freedom you also have responsibility,” he said. “You still have a job to do, you can’t just do what you want. You have to be self-motivated to get things done.”
And getting things done extends beyond driving. Ellis devotes his time to a variety of charity projects, being a senior member of OOIDA, a member of the American Truck Historical Society, plus keeps up with regulations that concern drivers, including electronic logs. While the rules themselves have not changed, the enforcement has, and for ELDs, Ellis said he’d like to see some variance.
“If you’re going out to the northwest, if you could drive maybe another 100 miles you might be able to avoid a snowstorm altogether,” but hours are close to running out. “So you have to actually drive through a bad situation instead of working a little of what I would call overtime.
“I don’t know if we’re very smart in asking for more time to work but we used to get paid extra for the choices we made out on the road,” Ellis added. “We’re losing the ability to make those decisions. The guy that’s behind the wheel has had the training and has the experience to make the decision to be able to go or not, not the time clock.”
Though the concept of being a knight of the highway, helping anyone that needs it, may have faded for the many drivers, it’s a practice that Ellis holds close to his heart.
“Say you see an old couple along the side of the road with a flat tire, you stop and help. Or you see a lady trying to change tire herself, and you do it for her. I still believe it’s our responsibility to help each other out,” even fellow truckers, he said.
In 10-below weather, Ellis once syphoned fuel from one line to the other after one tank was empty, for a trucker that worked at another trucking company near his own.
“My mouth tasted like diesel. We did get him going; we both about froze half to death,” Ellis said. “You just can’t leave someone out there in winter like that.”
Ellis’ giving heart isn’t confined to the highways. He has done everything from competing with his wife in poker tournaments for charity, to becoming an ordained minister to officiate at weddings for his niece, daughter and any friends who need him, to joining the American Truck Historical Society to help preserve the history and knowledge about trucks from a bygone era and helping with the South Dakota Special Olympics Convoy fundraiser for Special Olympics.
He’s volunteered for the convoy about 15 years, driving in it for the first few years, but these days he helps to promote and recruit volunteers, donors and vendors to raise money for the cause. His wife and two children are also involved.
“I jokingly say I’m there to shake hands and kiss babies. I’ve really been blessed with a lot of people around me that really work hard,” he said. Early on he realized the importance of the event: “[It was] the first time I ever had an athlete come up and give me a hug. … That really hit home that it’s not just that we’re just raising money for Special Olympics, we’re having an impact on the athletes, themselves.”
For about nine years, he’s competed in the South Dakota Truck Driving Championships, winning four state titles.
“I don’t have any special skills to be honest. I consider myself to be an average, every day truck driver” who only started to compete at the urging of a fellow trucker, he said. “I still, to be honest, am not that guy that says, ‘Oh I’ve got to try and win and I’m the best driver,’ because I don’t believe I am. … I believe in the program. For me, I do use it as a refresher course every year” for day-to-day driving.
Ellis said he does have to admit, “So far, I’m the only driver in South Dakota to ever get a perfect score on a pre-trip inspection.”
He doesn’t go the extra mile for praise, however; he simply “believes in supporting things that you enjoy.”
“I think it’s a great industry and I do think we need to give back. All of us out here owe our livelihood to the industry and we need to do our best to improve the image of the trucking industry,” Ellis said. “I try every day to do the best I can and often fail but I still keep going out and trying.”
What’s most important
Though it seems to be engrained in the soul of every trucker to keep trying and keep working hard, Ellis found that there are moments to stop, like in January 2016. His back pain had gotten worse, he was throwing up often, and a day before heading home he felt dizzy in a Missouri truck stop, with “blackness around the edges” of his vision. Once he got his bearings, he was able to safely go home, hopeful that the appointment with a new doctor would reveal some answers. Getting up from a hot bath, he passed out and hit his head on his bathroom sink. Once doctors saw him — throwing up a bucket of blood from a bleeding ulcer — he was put in the hospital.
“I ended up spending seven days in ICU,” Ellis said, pausing to hold back tears. “Because of the amount of blood that was lost, that’s the time I thought I was in trouble.”
Surgeons removed the bottom third of his stomach that had been eaten away. Recovery took about six to seven weeks. But it’s that experience that has made the Citizen Driver honor that much more meaningful. His family and trucking are his legacy, something a near-death experience brings a little more clearly to light.
“I’d like to stay in trucking for at least another 10 years,” Ellis said. “I’m hoping that I can keep my health up to do this — I do enjoy this.”