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Queen of the Road

May 18th, 2004 by Ryan Ozawa · 3 Comments · Miscellaneous

One of my family’s most cherished documents is a 1962 article in the Honolulu Advertiser profiling my grandmother. While it just happened to be written during the brief period she was married to her second and long-forgotten husband (thus the last name Burkhart), and has that 1960s “gee-whiz a working woman” tone, it is still a nice snapshot of how hard she worked to give my mom and her brothers a good life. I’ve transcribed it for her funeral on Sunday, so I figured I’d also post it online.

Queen Of Big Isle Roads Is Trucker Irene Burkhart
The Honolulu Advertiser, Monday, May 28, 1962

By TERRY MCMURRAY

HAWI, Hawaii — Driving a 200-mile truck route 14 hours a day, six days a week, to give three kids a college education is a man’s job.

It’s especially a man-sized task when the driver must load and unload cargo along the route.

Irene Burkhart, however, is not a man. She is not even man-sized.

She is a small, slight, attractive and energetic woman of 44 who wears jeans and shirt and puts her gray hair up in a ponytail. She says, “I hardly know what its like to wear a dress anymore.”

* * *

MRS. BURKHART has owned, driven, and operated her one-truck Ilani’s Express Service without help for five years. She operates between Hawi and Hilo.

This is 85 miles each way, and half of the route is a winding, often dangerous mountain road. Delivery rounds in Kohala, Kamuela and Hilo add more miles each day.

The only full-time woman trucker on the Big island, and perhaps in the State, she has never had an accident.

* * *

SHE LEAVES HOME six days a week at 5 a.m., makes stops in Kamuela, drives on to Hilo. She arrives about 8 a.m., drops off Hawi Theater’s film and makes her rounds of wholesale and parts firms, finishing at 1 p.m. after a box lunch.

On the road again, she arrives in Kamuela about 3 p.m., makes deliveries, drives 21 miles to Hawi, delivers through Kohala and gets home about 7 p.m.

She even drives on Sundays and holidays, making the run into Hilo and back to pick up and drop off Hawi Theater’s film cans.

* * *

HOW DOES heavy-truck driving affect her?

She’s cheerful enough. But her mother, Mrs. Susie Caitano, told a reporter one evening:

“She’s not home yet. Could you please call back after 7:30? She’ll be home by then, but I don’t think she’ll want to call you. “It’s all she can do to bathe, eat and get to bed…”

(Mrs. Burkhart was not home by 7:30, however. She drove in at 9 p.m. and started cleaning the truck. “I had to go out of my way tonight,” she explained.)

WHY WORK so hard at a job many strong men would shun?

“We’ve all got to live and the children have got to get through school,” she said.

Her children, whose father is dead, are Albert, 22, a University of Hawaii senior. Jack, 20, a UH Hilo Campus sophomore; and Myra, 17, a Mid-Pacific Institute senior with a UH future.

After they finish school?

“I may retire from trucking then,” said Mrs. Burkhart. “Maybe the children won’t want me to work,” she said, laughing.

* * *

“YOU’VE GOT TO give that wahine credit, though,” said Sadao Yamamoto, Kau Express driver, after helping her load up at one stop.

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3 Comments so far ↓

  • Beth

    Ryan, I’m so sorry to hear about your grandmother passing away. But I LOVE this article. She sounds like she was a wonderful hard working mom! I thought Katie got all her “I’m gonna be a brilliant strong woman!” spunk from Jen. Now I see she gets it from both sides!

  • Reggie

    Hi, Ryan. I was at the service for your grandma yesterday. And I got into this website and learned a few more details. It’s a fascinating story.

    I did read the article when it first came out, and I’m glad that I now have my own copy to keep.

  • Reggie

    Hi, Ryan

    I wrote this earlier, but I think I lost it before it got posted:

    We were at your grandma’s service yesterday. We heard a very fascinating story, and now in the website I learned even a few more facts.

    I read the article when it first came out in 1962. (Knew your uncle at UH Hilo). I’m glad I now have a copy to keep.

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