Not long ago, Peggy Arnold had the pleasure of watching her granddaughter, Aubrey O’Kelley, walk across a stage to accept her college diploma. Arnold was not the only beaming grandmother in the crowd, just as the young graduate wasn’t the only person in the room who made sacrifices to make it to this milestone.
But as she watched the graduation ceremony, Arnold couldn’t help but marvel at the road that had been traveled to bring her family to this point. It was both a literal journey, behind the wheel of a big rig, and a spiritual one, in the firm belief that raw determination would someday pay off in celebrations like this one.
“(Driving a truck) put me solidly in the middle class, and that was important,” Arnold shared. “It was important to me, it was important to my family, my children and even my extended family. I was the first person in my entire family that ever made any kind of money. I helped all of my family — my mother and my sibling — everybody.
“It is a success story and it helped me to be able to do the things that I wanted to do for my family and even continues to do that now, as I’ve helped my granddaughter get through college. I’m rewarded every day,” she continued.
The family has had a lot to celebrate these days.
In addition to her granddaughter’s long-awaited college graduation, Arnold recently attended another ceremony — this one for herself. During the Mid-America Trucking Show, held in Louisville, Kentucky, in March, Arnold was named the 2022 Driver of the Year by the Women In Trucking Association (WIT). Arnold accepted the award with her granddaughter looking on.
“She said to me when I won, ‘I’m so proud of you, Nanny, and I love you,’” said a beaming Arnold.
She says that talking about the award, for which she competed against two other finalists, still takes the breath out of her body.
While Arnold has been driving for more than three decades, the vast majority of those years for Yellow Corp., she says it still doesn’t seem that long ago that the thought of having a good-paying, professional career — not unlike her granddaughter’s goal of earning a college degree — was as far-fetched as flapping her arms and flying around the moon.
“I grew up with a single mother. My father had passed early on,” Arnold said. “My mother did the best she could, God love her, but she didn’t know to tell me the things that I didn’t know. I went to school, but I never heard a lot about college or anything like that. It was a struggle growing up, a very difficult childhood.”
Arnold stayed in school until the 10th grade before dropping out to go to work, where she accepted menial, low-paying jobs that, at the time, she thought were her only option. The work was hard and the pay was lousy, but what she lacked in formal schooling she more than made up for in bone-deep grit.
“I grew up on work,” she said. “Early on, I worked primarily in the service industry, either doing waitress work or cleaning rooms of hotels or working as a cashier at a small truck stop. I can remember working for $2.65 an hour a long, long time ago. And I can remember working for $4.50 an hour. It was the poverty level is what it was.”
Arnold had no direct exposure to truckers until her husband became a driver, and she remembers well stretching her already meager paycheck to help him get through driving school. In return, he taught her how to drive, a skill that wouldn’t add anything to the family coffers until she got her commercial driver’s license (CDL).
So off to truck driving school she went, in Lebanon, Tennessee.
“It was about a six-week course, and I couldn’t afford to take a hotel,” Arnold said. “I remember they had old (truck) cabs out there sitting on the ground, and there was a truck stop across the street. There was an old red Peterbilt cab. I slept and studied in the sleeper bunk of that thing and went across the street for a shower and to get food at the truck stop.”
Once she earned her credentials, Arnold got a job driving, but she says she underestimated how difficult it would be to leave her two small children for weeks at a time. She put in two torturous years before coming off the road and going to work at a truck stop.
“You go through this terrible time where you feel guilty for leaving your children,” she said. “You go through all of that, thinking, ‘I’m not there for them enough.’ You go through missing them. It was a terrible, terrible roller coaster time. And I did leave trucking and went back to the service industry because of my children and needing to spend time with them.
“But it just so happened that I was in the cashier business and there was a trucker that came by, and he made that his normal stop,” she continued. “We became friends, and one day he said to me, ‘Hey, you do know you can get into trucking and not be gone for weeks at a time.’ Of course, I did not know that. So, I was like, ‘Tell me more!’”
In 1992, she joined Consolidated Freight, only to switch shortly thereafter to Roadway Express, which was later bought by Yellow Corp. And while the runs were shorter and allowed her to spend time with her family, they added up over three decades to now total 1.9 million accident-free miles.
Arnold’s accomplishments piled up along with her mileage. She has been honored with Yellow’s Million Mile Safe Driving Award, has been noted on the list of 2022 Top Women to Watch in Transportation by WIT, was a finalist for American Trucking Associations’ America’s Road Team Captains for 2022, and received Yellow’s Road to Excellence Award for 2021 and Certified Safety Trainer for 2021.
She also serves on her company’s Women’s Inclusion Network Employee Resource Group, where she has the opportunity to offer new women drivers the kind of mentorship she never had.
“It’s right straight to the ground, right straight to my heart to help as many women as I can,” she said. “Especially when I see these women that maybe came from a job at McDonald’s or Subway, that came from a minimum wage-paying job, and they have children. I see myself in them. I so desire for them to be successful and to make it.”
Arnold has a passion for helping other women succeed, both in the trucking industry and in life.
“I tell them never give up, because you can’t give up in this industry. You may have a bad day, but you just pull up those bootstraps and you keep struggling right on,” she said.
“I give them my phone number and they can call my phone number 24/7 because I want them to have someone to call if they have an issue,” she continued. “And I always tell them, ‘You can go and do anything you want to do in this world. You just have to have the grit to go after it.’”
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.