Francis began his story with a short history of George Vandette's Midway, where heavy trucks could get repaired back in the 1940s. It also had a tire-recapping system, body shop and fuel station on U.S. 20 opposite the grain silos.
On the silo side of U.S. 20 was a diner and bunkhouse belonging to someone else. Then Vandette build a restaurant on land next to the garage, named it Vansons for his sons and gave it to them to run. Truck drivers had this all important support system in one spot for emergencies and engine overhaul.
When he was just out of high school, Smith said he “was friends with one of George's sons in school.” Both had taken auto mechanics.
“He invited me to work there for his dad. I was hired to haul tires in to retread service and then back to the truck,” Smith said.
In 1972, after military service Smith was hired a second time, to be in the parts room. He said it was “an easier job than hauling tires.”
But as the job grew he was promoted to head of department in a very busy area.
“I used to have nightmares about parts. Did I do this, or that? It'd wake you right up,” Smith said.
Francis took college prep classes in high school, but had experience on engines with his father who drove truck to pick up milk. He spent a lot of time helping repair and recondition that vehicle and knew his way around engines.
Out of high school Francis’ first job was in a factory where he said he “waited in lines” — to park, get clocked in, clocked out and get paid. He realized after a week and a half that he had had enough.
He worked at Gastown at the Ohio 4 and U.S. 20 intersection. There he had to “break down and repair truck tires — all by hand-using tire irons.”
“If a truck pulled in I'd wish it to pull up to a gas pump, not in back where the repair shop was,” Francis said. “It was dangerous work. A cage went around the tire so it wouldn’t get you if it blew up. Other than that I worked for a farmer.”
His mother recognized he wasn’t happy.
“Mom suggested Midway saying, ‘You’ve worked around trucks with Dad,’” Francis said. So he applied. “At that time you could get a job anywhere. At $2.25 (an) hour, furnish your own tools.”
Francis' first job was working on an engine with one of the older guys, Wayne Morrow. Most of them had years of experience with engines at Norwalk Truck Line, then had come to work at Midway when NTL closed.
“I helped him (Morrow) finish overhauling it. Wayne was an excellent technician, as the mechanics are called now. It was a lot of work. Depending on the engine model on an overhaul it's a 40-hour job. It’s a 100-hour job if an engine is in-frame or in-chassis,” Francis said.
“From then on it was working for the first month or two with someone as a mentor,” he added. “All the men were very, very qualified technicians.”
Francis was learning more of the diagnostic side every day, a constantly changing skill.
“Most overhaul is because the engine was worn out. We worked for large fleets like Interstate Motor Freight, Spector and the Norwalk Furniture Co., who all got 100 to 150,000 miles from an engine,” Francis said.
“Nowadays,” he added, “minimum is three-quarter million miles: better materials, technology advances, electronics.”
Until 1983 Francis did mainly engine work. He said he became the service manager “when the stress and headaches began.” All because he didn’t like how it was being handled and said so ...
“Think you can do it better ? Come on in,” said the boss and he stepped up.
Now Francis was dealing face-to-face with customers, while also making decisions for his employees about the repairs. His example was that a customer wanted a cheap repair because he planned to sell the vehicle soon. The technician wanted to do it right the first time, but it cost more.
Francis said he learned “you can’t change a customer’s personality, so mostly you got to use your ears.”
“God gave us ears to listen. Most of the time it gets worked out. I’ve learned that people who are loudest know the least, most of the time. To listen, listen, listen is important.”
In 1994 Midway became a franchise for Freightliner out of Oregon. Francis was promoted to being the dealer/trainer and took classes in Portland to teach mechanics, other dealers and customers about Freightliners' diagnostic systems for “electrical nightmares," in order to get certification. Most technicians want to work with their hands, not read diagnostics. Francis said he had to warn them “don’t waste time tearing it apart before you study the diagram.”
In 2005 when Midway opened a dealership in Mansfield, Francis had to hire all the technicians.
“It took a few years to get a really good team with all the training and tools, and who would come to work on time,” he said.
Smith had the same set of responsibilities setting up the new parts department.
Together with over 48 and 49 years experience, both men said they appreciate how “our company always looked out for us and were really good people.”
“They had our loyalty and supported us in whatever decisions we had to make,” they added.
Francis and Smith enjoyed the job because “it was never boring, with different challenges every day. We were always learning."
Welcome to the new fun and challenges of retirement.