For some big-rig truck drivers, the road begins in southwest Texas County.
That’s because they learn the trade and earn their class-A commercial driver’s license (CDL) through a six-week, 240-hour course at the Ozark Driving Institute (ODI) in Cabool. The facility is owned and run by James Gray, a lifelong Cabool resident whose family has been in the area since 1902. Gray is a military veteran and well qualified to run ODI, having more than two million miles under his belt as an over-the-road driver.
“This is the one industry where you can be a success if you just apply yourself,” Gray said. “I can’t think of any other industry that can take someone out of a welfare cycle and put them into middle-class America in three months. All you need is a little ambition and a willingness to learn.”
ODI had its first student in January 2015, and currently has about a dozen enrolled. The 20-acre campus has all the space needed for drivers to learn everything from backing around corners to parallel parking.
Students – including women – come from all over the U.S. and have the option to stay in a 16-room onsite boarding facility and be fed three meals a day.
“We have plenty of room to grow,” Gray said. “And we’ll be VA certified by the end of this year and be able to take in guys who come back from Afghanistan and stuff like that.”
ODI students currently learn behind the wheel of a pair of Freightliner 10-speed 18-wheelers.
“Most of the fleet is going to automatic transmissions,” Gray said. “But I’m old school; if you get tested in an automatic, that’s all you can drive, but if you get tested in a stick shift, you can drive anything.”
Gray is adamant about his approach to instruction, and believes ODI’s longer, more comprehensive curriculum creates better drivers than the common shorter versions.
“A lot of these schools run about three weeks,” he said, “and they teach people just enough to be dangerous and then put them out there. They’re butchering an honorable profession when they do that.
“When people leave here, they’re six weeks ahead of everybody coming out of those CDL mills.”
ODI students are guaranteed a job, and even know what company they’ll work for before they begin training. Gray has connections with several major carriers, including U.S. Express, Parshall Truck Lines, RBX and others, as well as local firms like Ramsey Trucking in Mountain Grove.
“We often get complimentary letters from them,” he said.
ODI’s program has been certified by the Missouri Board of Higher Education. Gray said his own daughter is a graduate.
“I kind of did that to prove a point,” he said. “Someone said, ‘how confident are you in your curriculum?’ I said, ‘well, I was confident enough to send it to the board and put my own children through it.'”
Gray calls truckers “knights of the road.”
“We see everything that goes on out there,” he said, “We’re the first ones there if there’s an accident and we see it when someone’s too drunk to stay on the road. When I was driving, we always looked out for everything around us and we hung tough together. A lot of people are getting away from that these days, but I still teach it.
“I want my people to be decent and good when they’re out there.”
As with most industries, things have progressed in trucking.
“Back when I started, we basically drove tractors,” Gray said. “We sat in a tractor seat with springs. Now a lot of trucks have microwaves and refrigerators and really nice beds, and sitting in them is like sitting in a lounge chair.”
To Gray and other dedicated truckers, driving an 18-wheeler for a living is more than a job, it’s a lifestyle. Gray said that lifestyle requires adjusting your thought process.
“Learning how to drive a truck is easy,” he said. “What’s hard is getting your mindset right. To be a trucker, you have to be a businessperson, because you’re the only one there. At a normal job, if something goes wrong you go to your supervisor, but in trucking, you’re the supervisor and everything else.
“And obviously, this lifestyle is on the road. If you don’t like yourself, this isn’t the job for you. I mean, the dog’s all right, but the dog doesn’t talk. If he does, you need to go home.”
Gray said his main goal is directing people toward their goals.
“I’m not in this for the money,” he said. “Our primary focus is putting people to work. We’re building a business that brings out money, but we’ll do it honorably with the student in mind. And these aren’t cattle, they’re people. They’re coming in with a dream in their head that they can have a house and a nice car and their kids can have those good shoes or play T-ball or whatever, and I’m not going to do anything that causes them to fail.
“If that happens, then I’ve failed.”
To learn more about the Ozark Driving Institute, log onto http://www.ozarkdrivinginstitute.com/tour.php call 417-254-0545 or email ODI vice president Audrey Hoots at email@example.com.