Valerie Yvonne Enders was born on Feb. 8, 1952, in Porcupine Plain, Sask., a small town about 280 km northeast of Saskatoon. Val was the second of four children to Elmer, a truck driver, and his wife, Helen, a homemaker, who moved their family to a logging camp near Prince George, B.C., a few years later. Val’s strong will shone through on her first day of school, when she returned home at lunch and announced that she was quitting. “She told me she didn’t think the teacher liked her,” recalls Helen. An outgoing, athletic child, Val gravitated to the outdoors, and “things that had wheels,” says her older sister Rita, often abandoning chores to ride her bike, and later mastering ATVs, snowmobiles and motorcycles with ease. “Everything a guy could do, she could do every bit as good,” says her brother Garry, recalling how his “tough as nails” sister stood up to some older boys when they threw his ball into the bushes. “Those guys couldn’t get down that hill fast enough.”
As he did with all his children, Elmer taught Val to drive on logging roads starting at about age 8. “The toughest places,” he says, “so they would be perfect drivers.” Safety and maintenance were paramount, says Elmer. Fresh vegetables from the garden at the family home on the outskirts of town were Val’s favourite. She loved country music, but also Elvis. (On Aug. 16, 1977, Val called her brother Rocky in tears. “She was crying because Elvis had died,” he says.) Though she was a “tomboy,” says Garry, her dark eyes, smooth hair, and olive complexion attracted the attention of the local paper, which often featured her in its seasonal photo spreads. “She could wear pearls and chop wood,” says Rita. After Grade 11 she left school, and at 18, married John Wheeler, a trucker who had grown up nearby.
It was around that time that Val became determined to be a trucker herself. Soon after, she demonstrated proficiency behind the wheel of a big rig during her first haul. En route to Saskatchewan with Elmer, the trailer they were pulling became unhitched, and she “put the brakes on slow,” he says, calmly avoiding an accident. But many of the men in the industry didn’t welcome women. Her first attempt to get her trucker’s licence in her early 20s ended when the instructor told Val, who stood about five foot two, that she couldn’t take the test until she could raise the hood. She started weightlifting, and before long, met his requirement. But the abuse from male drivers continued, “because she [was] better than they [were],” says Rocky, who also became a trucker. At the docks in Vancouver, men would line the pier, betting on whether she could back in. And she had to find “secret spots” to shower and sleep, he says, to avoid harassment.
After about a decade together, Val and John split up, but her passion for trucking remained. She referred to her truck as “her office,” says Rita, and she insisted that passengers take their shoes off. Over the years, she amassed a sizable collection of Elvis cards, books and other knick-knacks, and when she drove, says Rocky, “Elvis was always on.” Val “adored” her nieces, says Helen, and regularly took them fishing, hunting and snowmobiling. At work, the taunts she suffered served as motivation toperfect her skills. Known for her gentle touch and steadfast adherence to the speed limit, she logged almost a million miles on a single set of brakes. In the early 1990s, around the time she married Bernie Sealy, a pulp mill worker who appeared to be “a perfect match” for Val, says Garry, she became a truck driving instructor. “The Queen of Safety,” as Rita calls her, Val also didn’t hesitate to “walk right up” to snowmobilers and ATV riders if she thought they were doing something dangerous.
Val’s reputation as an expert driver was such that when icy conditions landed her pickup in a ditch a few years ago, people in town “couldn’t believe it,” says Rocky. The two regularly exchanged stories of the close calls they’d survived because of other drivers. In 2006, Val brought her concerns to MaryAnne Arcand, who heads the TruckSafe program in Prince George. “She had seen it all,” says MaryAnne, recalling her first impression of Val, who by then wore her long silver hair tied back in a ponytail. MaryAnne was putting together a radio campaign to encourage trucker safety, and she included many of Val’s suggestions.
On Aug. 16, Val drove her motorcycle to the home where she grew up to visit her parents and raid their vegetable garden. After more than 30 years on the road, she told them she was ready for retirement. Val left before dark, and decided to take the old highway, says Rocky, “because it was safer.” At about 8 p.m., a minivan ran a stop sign and crashed into her bike. She died at the scene, on the 31st anniversary of Elvis’s death. Val was 56.