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Alexandria man named state's top truck driver

Don Thoennes of Alexandria, who works for Kane Transport, Inc., was named this year's "Truck Driver of the Year" by the Minnesota Trucking Association. He earned the award based on his safe driving record, job performance and community service.

ALEXANDRIA - In the fall of 1975, Don Thoennes was working at the Skelly Station at the south end of Alexandria.

A truck stop that once stood where Fleet Farm now sits, the station was the perfect place for Thoennes, who used to watch the semi trucks and think that one day he would drive one of those big rigs.

Well, not only did the 56-year-old Alexandrian become a truck driver; he was named this year's Truck Driver of the Year by the Minnesota Trucking Association.

Thoennes and his family - including his wife, Cindy, and their two children, Dustin and Samantha - attended an awards banquet in Woodbury on January 19 along with all the other Truck Driver of the Month winners from around the state.

"I knew somebody was going to win. I just didn't think it would be me," he said in an interview last week. "I was shocked. My boss knew, but he didn't even tell me."

Thoennes, who works for Kane Transport, Inc. out of Sauk Centre hauling petroleum products to gas stations and bulk plants, received the distinguished honor based on his safe driving record, job performance and community service.

During his 32 years on the road, Thoennes has traveled more than 2.3 million miles in his big rig. And all of those miles have been accident-free. Because of that, he has won numerous safe-driving awards.

While grinning at her husband, Cindy Thoennes asked, "And how did you drive so many miles without any accidents?"

"Patience," he stated with a big smile across his face. "I'm in no big hurry. Some say I drive too slow, but I just do what I do. It just comes natural."

He quickly added, motioning to his wife, "She drives good, too, and I didn't even teach her!"

And even though he didn't think he would win the Truck Driver of the Year award, Thoennes admitted that he had a few words prepared just in case. But after his name was announced and he got on stage to accept it, he said he "just went blank."

"There are a lot of good drivers out there," he said. "I was really honored to have won."

His wife, Cindy, said, "I was very happy for him. He really deserved it. He works hard and is a very conscientious employee."

How it all began

While working at the Skelly Station, Thoennes said one of the drivers that frequently came in asked him if he wanted to try driving. He, of course, said yes.

With no training whatsoever, Thoennes got behind the wheel of the big rig, with the "real" driver in the passenger seat, and the two drove from Alexandria to Lisbon, North Dakota, which was nearly a 150-mile trip.

"I was very nervous," he admitted. "But I liked it right away."

When they got to their destination, Thoennes had a little bit of trouble backing the semi up - it took him between 20 and 25 minutes. Finally, he got the rig where it was supposed to be and when he got out, he said his knees were knocking.

That same fall in 1975, Thoennes started working for Falls Transport. He worked for that company until May of 1979 when he started working for Kane Transport, which had bought out Falls Transport.

When he started, he drove the 10th truck. Now, there are close to, if not more than, 150 trucks with 50 to 75 lease operators.

All in a day's work

On average, Thoennes estimates that he travels about 80,000 miles per year and each day, can drive up to 11 hours or about 600 miles worth if he does mostly interstate driving.

Over the years, there have been some changes to the trucking industry. For instance, the dispatch center is all computerized now and so is the process for logging miles.

"I like it," he said of the computerized logging. "It's less paperwork and that's good."

He also likes the changes that have been made to the trucks, such as the addition of power steering and air conditioning, and how much more smooth and quieter the ride is.

One thing, however, that hasn't changed is what he deems the worst part of his job - the tailgaters.

"Those are the ones who want to pass you but never do," he explained. "After awhile, you just try to ignore them."

Most drivers, but not all, he added, are courteous and give truckers the room they need. But sometimes, Thoennes said, people tend to forget that it takes a truck with 80,000 pounds of cargo in it longer to stop than a normal vehicle or truck.

One change that has occurred slowly over time is the perception of truck drivers.

"Years ago, we had a bad reputation," he explained. "But not really anymore. We are human beings just like the rest of you."

To him, truck driving is peaceful, especially when he listens to music.

"I like country western and a little bit of Albany," he grinned, while his wife explained that "Albany" refers to polka music.

Thoennes enjoys his job thoroughly and has no plans to retire anytime soon - although he has thought about it once or twice.

"I just enjoy trucking," he said. "I love driving and I love meeting new people. I like being outside and I like that nobody is watching over your shoulder. I just do what I do!"