DALLAS – For decades, Dave Nemo has been a traveling companion to more truck drivers than he’ll ever know, and he’s been to more truck shows than he can probably remember.
But the 2017 Great American Trucking Show is one he’ll never forget, thanks to sly bit of deception by a few of his best friends.
Nemo, whose show can be heard every morning on Sirius XM Radio’s Road Dog Trucking channel, was asked on the sly to be among the speakers at a special presentation on Friday to honor Nemo’s longtime friend, Jon “Doc” Osburn, currently an ambassador for the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA) and driver of OOIDA’s Spirit of the American Trucker vehicle.
“I was told I was going to present Jon with an award,” Nemo said. “It just seemed so obvious to me, for everything he’s done. And he’s a great friend personally.”
Nemo prepared a speech reflecting all the way back to their days in the service in South Korea. When he took the stage along with a handful of their mutual friends, Nemo was ready to sing to the Osburn’s praises.
Michael Frybarger of Bryan Truck Lines opened the presentation by reading an excerpt from a poem by Michael Josephson titled “What Will Matter.”
In the end, the poem says, a person’s life is measured “not by your success, but by your significance … not what you learned, but what you taught … what will matter is not your memories but the memories that live in those who love you … Living a life that matters doesn’t happen by accident. It’s not a matter of circumstance, but of choice. Choose to live a life that matters.”
“The person we’re presenting this to has always, is presently and will always continue to live a life that matters because that’s his persona,” Frybarger said. Then Frybarger called upon Osburn to step up. The audience applauded as Osburn took the mike and the award from Frybarger, sniffled a little, and humbly began to read:
“‘Lifetime achievement award,’” he began, then he stopped, pretending to be caught off guard. “Wait – ‘presented to Dave Nemo for a lifetime of commitment …,’” at which point the applause drowned out Osburn. The deception had worked perfectly. Nemo sat stunned for a moment as it all began to slowly sink in that the tribute was for him.
“It was overwhelming to me,” Nemo said later. He got up, and got a congratulatory hug from Osburn while the crowd, some of whom had been in on the ruse, chanted “Nee-mo! Nee-mo!”
“I’ve been speaking on the radio for 45 years; I can’t think of a thing to say,” Nemo told the crowd.
“I’ve never wanted to be a truck driver,” he said. The first time he ever rode in a truck was in 1958 when his car ran out of gas and a truck driver gave him a lift. The driver got him to a gas station and arranged for someone to take him back to his car.
“That was my introduction to you guys,” Nemo said.
The crowd broke into another round of applause, and the weight of the moment caught up to him. He needed to step back and compose himself, which was fine because his friends had plenty to say on his behalf.
“I’m real honored to call him a friend,” Osburn said, adding that one of the things he’s valued most about Nemo is something that is often said about his on-air appeal. He has such an even-keeled temperament. He’s a calming, comforting presence.
David Owen, president of the National Association of Small Trucking Companies, has experienced the same thing. For someone who talks for a living, “He’s the best listener, or he seems to be,” Owen said. “He’s an enigma. I don’t care how long you’ve known the man, you can’t tell what side of any issue he’s on.
“The man could have done anything,” Owen said, and it’s the trucking culture’s good fortune to have him. “Just think of the millions of lives he’s touched.”
OOIDA Executive Vice President Todd Spencer recalled early in his career being one of those who benefitted from Nemo’s presence on the airwaves.
“I spent many a night trucking,” Spencer said. “When you listened to Dave, you always knew there was a friend on the other end of that microphone. That’s never changed.”
Michael Liutkus, vice president of marketing and public relations for Travelcenters of America, said it is easy to tell Nemo is someone who has truckers’ best interests at heart.
Liutkus is also board chairman of the St. Christopher Truckers Relief Fund, which Nemo cofounded with Dr. John McElligott to help drivers who experience catastrophic injury or illness. In its 10 years, the fund has provided roughly 2,000 drivers with about $2 million in assistance.
“The unique heart and character you have goes into that charity,” Liutkus said to Nemo. He then presented Nemo with a crystal microphone, and the group had one more gift – they’d taken up a collection to help send Nemo on his long-held dream vacation to Hawaii.
As the presentation wrapped up, dozens of people from the crowd came up to shake Nemo’s hands, have their pictures taken with him and offer their own words of appreciation.
Eventually, the crowd started to thin. Nemo looked a little spent, but in a good way.
“I never expected anything like that,” he said. “You just do what you do, you do your job, you are who you are and that’s enough.”