By William Kincaid
FORT RECOVERY -- One man has kept on trucking for Cooper Farms for almost as long as the business has been in existence, ensuring area turkeys and hogs are well fed before they're processed.
At age 72, Arnold "Arnie" Westgerdes continues to work for Cooper as the oldest employee -- both in age and seniority -- with an almost flawless record. In his 50 years of truck-driving ventures, he has never been in an accident or received a ticket.
Well, not really.
"It wasn't really a ticket," Westgerdes' wife Viola told The Daily Standard during an interview with the couple.
Once when a road was closed in Darke County, Westgerdes failed to come to a complete stop before turning his truck around. And right away, the ominous red-and-blue flashes appeared and a sheriff pulled him over and gave him a written warning. "That threw me off guard," Westgerdes said about the stop. "That was a long time ago."
Westgerdes was offered a part-time job in 1956 -- after returning from a two-year stint in the army -- to work at St. Claire Mill, which is now Cooper Farms Feed and Animal Production in Fort Recovery. After a few months, the part-time gig turned into a full-time job.
In his early years during the late 50s and early 60s, Westgerdes was responsible for loading a truck with bags of feed. He then would drive out to the farms, of local farmers who were contracted by the mill to raise turkeys and chickens for the production plant in St. Henry, and feed the livestock in the fields.
"That was something back in those days," he said.
Originally, one man would drive the truck to each section of turkeys, while another man in the back of the truck would pour the grain into the range feeders.
"Back when we started we didn't have many trucks," Westgerdes said. "That's how it used to be years ago."
The feeding process was made even more rigorous in formidable weather. When it rained heavily, Westgerdes said the truck would get stuck and "slop around in the mud." Layers of snow also proved to be obstacles in feeding all the animals during a day.
"He got home pretty late at times," his wife recalled.
But in 1960 when Cooper expanded operations, the feeding process became more efficient as Cooper bought two 2-ton bulk trucks.
"They bought a new truck and asked if I wanted to drive it," he said. "And I have been with it (the job) ever since."
With the new truck came a new method of feeding as Westgerdes worked by himself. He would pull up to each feeder, get out of the truck and manually transfer the grain from the truck's auger to the feeders.
And in the last six years, the process was made even easier as all the trucks were equipped with automatic hydraulic system with controls inside the cab, allowing Westgerdes to stay inside while transferring grain.
"It's a lot easier," he said.
As the plant grew in years and in operations, Westgerdes no longer had to travel to the fields to feed the outdoor turkeys because of their relocation to indoor poultry barns. Today Cooper produces more than 155 million pounds of live turkeys that are sustained with 400,000 tons of feed annually.
In 50 years of driving, Westgerdes has never been in an accident -- including any run-ins with deer.
"And I've probably driven a couple of million miles -- I better knock on wood now," he said about never being in an accident.
However, other Cooper drivers have not been so lucky. According to Westgerdes, one driver rolled his truck while trying to change his boots.
"It's amazing all the trucks on the road we don't have more accidents," he said. "We have a lot of good drivers though."
Westgerdes said he prefers driving in a truck because he is elevated off the ground and can observe more of the road and the oncoming traffic.
The truck driver was awarded a plaque for his years of service on Wednesday at Coopers. His award says that his positive attitude, loyalty and exemplary performance and safety record have been a model for all of the employees who have had the chance to work with him.
"His attitude projects a positive image of the company for our customers," Cooper representative Sandy Hastings told The Daily Standard. "He's just a good person to have around as a mentor for the younger ones."
Hastings said that although he is 72, he still holds up his job duties like any younger employee. Also, she said Westgerdes acts as ambassador for the company and carries out public relations with the farmers.
Westgerdes, who still works 50 hours a week, said he'll probably retire in a few years depending on his health. When people ask him, he usually says, "What do I want to retire for? What am I going to do after retirement, sit around?"
He said his six sons, who are all married, and 18 grandchildren keep him young.