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Barb Herman remembers it like it was yesterday.
Just 6 years old, she was determined to help her father unload a shipment of five-pound potato sacks from his produce truck. To her, those sacks felt like they weighed 50 pounds.
“I struggled with everything in me to get those potatoes to the rear of the trailer,” she said.
Herman and her father. (Barb Herman)
On the ride home, she proudly told her dad that she would someday be a truck driver, just like him. But he tried to dissuade her right on the spot. “Barbie, women don’t drive trucks,” he said.
More than five decades later, Herman claimed the 2018-2019 Professional Tank Truck Driver of the Year award at the 71st Annual National Tank Truck Carriers Conference in April. After 34 years behind the wheel and more than 1.7 million safe-driving miles, this driver for K-Limited Carriers out of Toledo, Ohio, has proved that women do drive — and do it well.
“I have pulled every kind of trailer except cows and cars, and I have no desire to pull either,” she said.
But the weight of those potato sacks was nothing compared to the painful struggles she’s faced along the way in a driving career that stretches back to the day in 1984 when she surprised her dad with the news that she had, in fact, learned to drive a truck. She was 25 and had been taught to drive by her then-husband John, with whom she’d eventually team-drive.
Herman and her late husband, John, securing a load. (Barb Herman)
“I never told Dad that John was teaching me to drive,” Herman said. When she was sure she was ready, Herman pulled up to her father’s house, pulled the air brakes, and waited. “He walked out on his porch, hands in his pockets and shook his head and said, ‘Only my daughter,’” she said. “Before he died, he told me how proud he was of me.”
Her father’s death in 2005 was, sadly, the first of several heartbreaks to come, and each time, Herman had to summon the strength of that determined 6-year-old to get through.
Her mother died just 13 days before her father, and an aunt died from cancer just a few months later. “She was like my second mom,” Herman said.
Then, just eight months after her parents’ deaths, John died of a heart attack. “I sat down in the middle of my living room floor with the phone in my hand and thought, ‘I have to call my mom — wait a minute, she is gone,’” Herman said. “I felt like an orphan.”
Then, in 2010, Herman lost her daughter to a heroin overdose.
The weight of so much loss took its toll. “I had reached a point where I wanted to go to the cemetery, curl up and never come home,” she said.
In the fall of 2006 Herman connected with her second husband, Bill, who had recently been widowed, and together they have worked through the process of grieving their losses. “He gave me purpose again,” she said. They got married Oct. 4, 2008.
Herman and her husband, Bill, at the NTTC Driver of the Year award ceremony in Las Vegas, April 24. (NTTC)
Despite having endured more than her fair share of tragedy, the last thing Herman is looking for is pity. Indeed, there’s a powerful mix of strength and kindness in her 5-foot-2 frame, and the hardships she’s faced have taught her to always stay focused on safety — for the loads she’s hauling, for those around her and, of course, for herself.
In her younger years, Herman’s petite size and long hair drew looks at truck stops, so she always tried to arrive early to snag front-row parking to ensure good lighting and easy access to the facilities. It’s a habit she still follows, along with dressing in inconspicuous clothing to help her stay under the radar.
Herman and her late husband, John, (left) ran into country music singer Joe Stampley while running a load in San Antonio. (Barb Herman)
One night a while back, however, she pulled into an Arkansas truck stop much later than she’d wanted and had to settle for a third-row spot. While shuffling through the parking lot on the way to the bathroom, Herman was stopped by a police officer who demanded to see her ID — which was back in the cab of the truck. After an awkward conversation for both of them, she took him to her truck and proved that she was a driver.
“He apologized, but they were having so much trouble at the stop with hookers, and he had just assumed that because I was a woman walking alone — you fill in the blank,” she said.
While she no longer is a team driver, sometimes when exiting the cab, she’ll yell back to her truck, “Honey, I will be right back, do you want a cup of coffee?” It’s a ruse to throw off those who might target a woman traveling alone.
“Safety is a big issue for me,” she said.
That’s equally true for the tank-truck loads she hauls, her specialty area for the past 11 years since joining K-Limited.
Pulling a tanker requires a refined feel and a certain set of skills, Herman said. “You could pull the exact same load 100 times, but that 101 could be as different as daylight and dark,” she said.
Herman hooking up hoses on a tank trailer. (Barb Herman)
She noted that the sloshing and movement of liquids in a tanker means that every turn and movement shifts the load. “Every load I have behind me I treat as if it was my first,” Herman said.
That kind of care undoubtedly contributed to her NTTC Driver of the Year award, even if she was surprised to have made the cut.
“When they told me I made the finals I was like, ‘You’re kidding, right?’” she said. “I just couldn’t wait to meet all the guys who made it.” On April 24, she took home the honor.
“I started my acceptance speech with thanking God for giving me this day, this hour, this moment,” Herman said. She followed that with recognizing her children, husband Bill, late husband John, K-Limited owners Dean and Kim Kaplan and, of course, her dad. Herman said she is always trying to live up to the good example her father set as a truck driver, despite his initial doubts that she could make it in the industry.
“I want people to remember me for doing the right thing, even when no one is looking,” she said.
That’s why she works to give back to the industry. Herman is a longtime Ohio Truck Driving Championships participant and volunteer, and during the state fair, she works the trucking association’s booth to help educate drivers about sharing the roads with trucks. “We are down there to educate the general public about how to drive around big equipment,” she said.
Herman has participated in a charity bike ride that provides women with free self-defense training. (Barb Herman)
Herman also works to improve safety for women, recalling one particular encounter that has stayed with her. “There was a young girl in the bathroom and I said to her, ‘You know you don’t have to do this; I can help you,’” Herman said, reacting to a gut feeling that the girl was troubled. The girl replied, “You don’t understand, it’s too late,” and quickly left.
In past years, Herman has ridden her motorcycle in the Sierah Joughin Memorial Ride, which benefits the Keeping our Girls Safe nonprofit. The ride is named for Joughin, who was kidnapped and killed while riding her bicycle in 2016. “We ride in her name,” Herman said.
The money raised covers the cost of self-defense classes for young girls in northwest Ohio. July 7 marked the fourth annual ride.
These efforts and Herman’s approach to her job are all guided by a principle she follows each time she steps into a cab. “Every time I climb up into my truck, I do it as safely as I can,” she said. “I want everyone to go home. I want to go home.”