Cleveland (“Cleve”) Francis has been driving for so long — 55 years — it’s difficult to wrap one’s head around it.
Before there were laptops, ATMs or solar energy panels, before color TVs, biofuels or disposable lighters, and long before smart watches, digital cameras and video games, Francis was on the road. The very truck he drives for UPS is a repository of things younger than his career behind the wheel – bar codes, GPS, a smartphone, even his CDL – to say nothing of most of the items contained in the packages he delivers.
And in this day and age, the fact that he’s driven it all with one company is almost as amazing as the tenure itself.
“I grew up in south Kentucky, and I live in Louisville, now,” Francis told The Trucker via Zoom (which was invented 41 years after he first took the wheel). “My two oldest brothers drove dump trucks in their younger days, and I’d drive one. I kind of got it in my blood.
“I grew up in a rural area and joined the Army first,” he continued. “Then I drove local for a while when I saw this ad in the paper for a truck driving school and they would place you in a job. I done that, and they placed me at UPS (after finishing). I’ve been here ever since.”
In 1967 — the same year the home version of the microwave oven came out — the concept of a commercial driver’s license (CDL) was still 25 years away. Francis initially drove on a chauffeur’s class license, which he earned in two weeks of training. He started on a local delivery route and then sampled some over the road stuff but missed being able to have connections with other people out on the open highway.
“After about a year (of local driving), I did take a road job and drove that for about a year — and then went I back to doing delivery,” he said. “I kind of liked delivery to a certain extent. You get to know the people you were delivering to. You’re there every day and kind of know them, know their habits.”
As the customers on his delivery route became accustomed to seeing Francis day after day, he became less of a service worker and more a welcomed friend to them, especially in rural areas. The fond regard his customers had for him was always underscored during the holidays as he made his regular stops and dropped off deliveries.
“During the holidays it’s kind of an exciting time on delivery,” he said. “People in the city would give you whiskey. That was a gift. Rural people are also pretty compassionate. If you do for them, they want to do for you.”
During his twelfth year as a driver, Francis’ regard for and familiarity with his customers paid off in the most important way imaginable.
One day in 1979, he pulled up to a regular stop on his route and immediately felt something was amiss on a customer’s property.
“He was a tugboat captain, down the Ohio River here, and he had diabetes,” Francis said. “He lived off the road a little bit by himself, as a lot of rural people do. I had medication for him one day and circled the drive up there and seen the door open in his garage.”
Francis went in to investigate — and saved a life.
“I don’t know how long he’d been lying there — a couple days, maybe. He broke his shoulder when he fell,” Francis said. “He’d lost a leg, you know, with the diabetes. He fell and broke his shoulder and he laid there and got weak.
“He gave me his keys up there to his house and I called the ambulance and waited ‘til they got there,” he continued. “They took him to the hospital and told me he would have passed away in another 12 hours. He was pretty weak.”
This tale is one of many that comprise Francis’ five-decades-plus of service, a tenure leading him to enshrinement in UPS’ Circle of Honor. This group includes 10,500 active members, each with a minimum of 25 years behind the wheel.
“We could not be prouder of Cleve’s accomplishments and commitment to driving safely for himself, his family and our communities,” said Todd Wachter, global fleet safety director for UPS.
Among the names on that exclusive roster, Francis is in a category all by himself. Not only is he the group’s elder statesman, but he also has the most years of safe driving among all UPS tractor-trailer and delivery drivers.
“Three or four years ago I went to Indianapolis to a convention and tried to figure out my miles,” Francis said. “I’d say it’s about 5 million or something like that. It’s something like 140,000 a year.
“At UPS, they have a culture of safety, and they promote that. It’s a little mental also; you’ve got to be kind of mentally into it,” he continued. “They do a lot of training, and it works for the route. They also give you tips in the morning to kind of get your mind on what you’re doing. If you do what they teach you there, you’ll be pretty successful.”
Whoever’s in second place isn’t likely to gain a lot of ground on Francis in the near future. Since the 1980s, he’s worked as a feeder driver, and he still runs his well-worn route from Louisville to Union City, Tennessee, round trip of more than 500 miles.
“Cleve is a one-of-a-kind driver who loves to drive. You can say driving is his hobby. Not many drivers these days have the drive and dedication to service like him,” said Wall Stanley, Louisville feeder on-road supervisor for UPS.
“On days that he has an empty trailer on his way back to Louisville, he will call the Knoxville or Lexington hub just to see if they need help moving loads,” Stanley continued. “This is not part of his schedule, but he will do it to help out.”
In whatever driver capacity you could possibly name, it’s safe to say that “they just don’t make ’em” like Cleveland Francis anymore.
That may explain why, at age 79, he isn’t entertaining the thought of pulling over for good anytime soon.
“I’ve got a few more miles in me,” he said with a gentle smile. “I don’t know how many, but I’ve been pretty fortunate to have good health. I’m pretty proud of my driving career, and as I said, I’m still in good shape. I enjoy driving, so I haven’t quit yet.”
Dwain Hebda is a freelance journalist, author, editor and storyteller in Little Rock, Arkansas. In addition to The Trucker, his work appears in more than 35 publications across multiple states each year. Hebda’s writing has been awarded by the Society of Professional Journalists and a Finalist in Best Of Arkansas rankings by AY Magazine. He is president of Ya!Mule Wordsmiths, which provides editorial services to publications and companies.