INDIANAPOLIS — An Amish buggy, it's not exactly 80 tons of monstrous truck.
A grocery store job frying doughnuts and decorating cakes, it's not exactly hauling twin beds of freight 10 hours in the dark, wee hours overnight.
But Verna Gillen, a 49-year-old Columbus, Indiana, woman took a definite U-turn in life, and now she lives her dream on the open roads.
"I decided I wanted to drive a truck, but I never thought I'd really be doing it," she said. "On my 40th birthday, I thought 'You know what? It's now or never.'"
So, she started classes at Old Dominion Freight Line in Indianapolis nine years ago and became a line haul driver. And not just any driver.
Last month, Gillen became the first woman in the state to ever win first place in the Indiana Truck Driving Championships, which has been going on for 74 years, The Indianapolis Star reported (http://indy.st/1oKY1di ).
She beat out veteran drivers to take top honors in the twin bed category and she was named rookie of the year. She'll head to nationals in Pittsburgh in August (by the way, she's driving there — not flying).
But her life didn't start out in a trucking sort of way.
Gillen grew up on a farm in Kidron, Ohio, Amish country of the Midwest. It's a small town known for two big Amish auctions that bring people from all over the country, the Mennonite Relief Sale and Auction and the Auction Barn.
She went to Amish school and graduated, but didn't go to college. At age 22, she broke away from the Amish life. She got married and was a stay-at-home mom to three kids.
Eventually, life took her and her family to Indiana where, after a divorce, she met her second husband, James Gillen. He was a truck driver for Old Dominion. That was 20 years ago. Perhaps, the truck driving seed was planted.
But Gillen had a job at JayC Food Stores in the deli, frying doughnuts and decorating cakes.
"It didn't pay quite as well," she said. Gillen wanted to make more money and that's when, nine years ago after turning 40, she took the leap to the semi-truck way of life.
"She is a strong, very strong determined woman," said James Gillen, who no longer drives trucks after suffering a stroke. "When she puts her mind to something, it doesn't matter what it is, she will keep going after it until she gets it done."
Today Verna Gillen's job is a tough one, 12- to 13-hour night shifts five days a week.
She leaves her house about 8 p.m., gets her freight at the terminal, checks her truck and makes sure the necessary paperwork is in order. She then drives her Day Cab 10-speed truck from Indianapolis to Rock Island, Illinois.
She takes a salad and a piece of fruit to eat. A 30-minute break is required, where she will sit back and relax or maybe take a little nap.
Then she continues on her way to Illinois, where she meets a Des Moines, Iowa, driver. The two swap freight and take it back to their home terminals.
On her way home to Indianapolis, Gillen often makes a quick detour at a truck stop and grabs a small bag of mustard pretzel bites.
The people inside don't suspect she's a truck driver. The mother of five and grandmother of two "is a lady and she carries herself that way," said her husband.
"To look at her you would never think she was a driver," said James Gillen. "She's not dirty. She's not the hippie look, not what you would expect a truck driver to look like."
Verna Gillen agrees. When she tells people what she does for a living?
"Their biggest thing is, 'No way. You drive that?'" she said.
Which brings us to the trucking competition. A woman hasn't managed to place first in more than 70 years.
And Gillen wasn't about to give it a try, though she does have one of Old Dominion's best records for safe driving. She had volunteered for the event, put on by the Indiana Motor Truck Association at Lincoln College of Technology in Indianapolis, but never competed.
This year she thought why not?
Gillen faced off with veteran guys, who've been driving for decades, on a written test, a pre-trip test and a driving course, where she maneuvered around road kill and aced the rear stop test.
"I was so nervous about doing it," she said. "You have the best guys in there that have done this for years. And they're good."
Still, she managed to beat them out, even though in a nervous twist she got 25 points deducted for not putting on her seat belt, which she always does.
Her score was the highest. The first woman to beat the men.
Of course Gillen, who earned her black belt in Taekwondo last year, is modest about it all.
"I had a good day," she said. "That's all it was."
Information from: The Indianapolis Star, http://www.indystar.com