When Richard Filiczkowski heard his name called as this year's Goodyear North American Highway Hero, he walked around the table he shared with other finalists and hugged everyone. Then he and his wife Janet took the stage amid applause at the Truck Writers of North America's annual banquet, held during the Mid-America Trucking Show.
In April 2007, owner-operators Richard and Janet were running for C.R. England on I-90 west of Sioux Falls, S.D. Janet was at the wheel while Richard rested in the sleeper. When a car ahead careened into an icy pond, she shouted to him and pulled off the road.
He sprinted a quarter-mile to the water and saw 8-year-old Abby Bern inside the sinking car, pounding on the back window. He plunged in and pulled her out. But her father, Dr. Jeff Bern, was still pinned in, unconscious. Richard and others went back to free him, but too late to save his life.
The story charged the Louisville banquet room with emotion, but nothing like what happened next. Onto the stage came Abby and her widowed mother, Marty Bern. Goodyear had brought them in to share the Filiczkowskis' special moment. There wasn't a dry eye in the house.
This is the 25th year of Goodyear's sponsorship of the Highway Hero program, which honors truckers for acts of heroism. It was founded by this magazine in 1981; we donated it to Goodyear in 1983.
Highway Hero candidates, usually nominated by companies, family or friends, can win more than just applause and a plaque. Goodyear presents the top hero with a $10,000 savings bond and a Highway Hero ring. The three finalists each receive a $5,000 savings bond.
This year's finalists are: Rick Tower, Yreka, Calif., a driver for Earl Bryant Trucking who rescued a woman from her sinking car; David Virgoe, Innisfil, Ont., a driver for Wilburn Archer Trucking who died after he swerved his tanker to miss street racers and crashed to avoid oncoming traffic; and Ronnie Greene, Regina, N.M., a driver for A. Passmore & Sons who saved a pregnant woman from an attack after she was run down by a car.
But the program doesn't stop with honoring them. Through extensive public relations efforts, Goodyear makes sure the whole country knows of their heroism. The message: Truckers are caring people who will risk their own lives to save others.
Press releases go out on the business wire and to mainstream media. Hometown papers, radio and TV stations run stories and interviews with the heroes. Fox aired national coverage last year, and don't be surprised if you see Richard and Janet on TV soon.
The Filiczkowskis are naming their new truck "Abby's Angels" and making it a rolling memorial to Dr. Bern, whose funeral they attended. They're also donating two cents per mile from the truck - and half of their $10,000 prize - to the Bern family college fund.
When they were in Louisville for the ceremony, the couple met another special person: Ronnie Stapleton, the first Goodyear Highway Hero. Twenty-five years ago he tore off the back door of a burning car with his bare hands to save two unconscious men.
Stapleton, who has donated his service as pastor of his Beckley, W.Va., church for the past 28 years, now owns two trucks, which he and one of his sons drive. He has his own authority and has three owner-operators leased to him. Here's something that should surprise no one: He lets them keep all the revenue from their hauls.
These are the kinds of people who Goodyear brings to the public's attention - people who are the heart and soul of trucking. It's a message that benefits everyone in this industry. Hats off to Goodyear.