by Rolf Lockwood
Small in stature, big in heart. That was Merv Orr in a nutshell, a prince of a guy, one of the best people I've ever known. If I've been successful as a trucking journalist, he has to take a big share of the thanks.
Many of you will remember him as a driver trainer, but he was also the first owner-operator at Reimer Express back in the mid-1950s. Those were trucking's formative years, with the huge addition of long-haul work following a strike by railway workers that shifted freight in our direction. Merv drove or in some other way worked in trucking from the late 1940s onward, and some of that history is recalled on p. 23 in a piece he wrote for me on his retirement 10 years ago. He died of a heart attack in Elliott Lake, Ont., on Feb. 23, aged 72.
When Merv's son Rodney called to give me the sad news of Merv's passing, my first reaction was one of loss, naturally. Selfish, but I expect there's a sizeable bunch of folks feeling that way, because Merv's crusty but generous nature touched a lot of people over the years. Many, many of them will wish they'd had the chance to say see ya.
I first met Merv just after becoming editor of Canadian Driver/Owner magazine in the late 1970s. Actually, I inherited him because the previous editor had arranged for Merv to help with road tests of new trucks. Like that editor, I knew virtually nothing about trucking when I landed the job, so I was happy to continue the relationship. I didn't expect that I would also gain a friend and mentor.
At the time, Merv was running a driving school in Cambridge, Ont., but he'd done just about everything else in trucking beforehand. A native of Fort William, Ont. (now part of Thunder Bay), he left school after grade four and ran away - really - to join a circus at the age of 12 or 13. That was in the early 1940s. He found himself training monkeys and, a sign of things to come, driving one of the circus trucks. Then he spent time in the merchant marine, working on freighters plying the Great Lakes, still a kid. He hopped off in Toronto at the age of 16 or so, and made his way into trucking.
Merv had spirit, he had backbone, and he obviously had both of those somewhat rare character strengths from the start. He first went trucking for Superior Cartage in Fort William, later joining Reimer as an owner-operator with his B-Model Mack. At one point in the 1950s he had three trucks on at the big Winnipeg fleet, including a heaterless Leyland tractor that was one of the country's first diesels in over-the-road work. He ran east-west routes between Winnipeg and Thunder Bay or Toronto for much of his career, long before there was a Trans Canada. At later points he was a terminal manager for Smith Transport and for a stretch he ran a truckstop midway between Winnipeg and Kenora, Ont.
He'd pretty much done it all but in the mid-1970s he added one more line to the resume when he opened Merv Orr's Transport Driver Training School an hour west of Toronto. That's where I learned to drive back in 1980, a process that continued during our road tests over the next 15 years or so. We'd have a truck for two days at least, and our routine was that he drove the first day while I scribbled notes, and then I'd take the wheel on day two. We got to be able to judge a truck's ride, incidentally, by the legibility of my notes!
Given Merv's vast experience and his willingness - indeed, eagerness - to share it, our friendship was a gold mine for me. We spent many, many hours together in those days, and like a thirsty sponge I just soaked up his knowledge. He would explain this or that as we cruised down the highway or poked around under the hood, and I gradually came to understand what trucks were all about.
Merv always said he was more comfortable in a truck than a car, and that comfort was obvious every time I watched him wheel a long-nosed Kenworth or Pete all the way up Yonge Street, from the Lakeshore to Highway 401, in about 10 miles of thick weekday traffic. His moves were firm, his actions decisive, and I can't imagine anyone doing it better or faster or safer in a little car. He was a pro, and I was often awestruck watching him display his skills.
I had the honor of delivering the eulogy at a memorial service for Merv in Cambridge last month, a chance to say thanks and to express my admiration for a guy who typified all that is good about the best of truckers. He was a dignified, generous, gracious man who knew what was right, what was necessary, and when to battle for it. A man who cared deeply about doing the job well, whatever the job might be, and expected others to do the same. A man who respected other people and showed it, a man who never assumed anything, who knew that you earned only what you worked for. A thoroughly kind and decent man for whom family came first.
Merv was what the rest of us should strive to be.