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Lunch with Marjorie: The Illinois Dalton Gang were mostly movers–part two

November 10, 2010

Editor’s note: The following is the second in a three-part series. Part one appeared in the Oct. 13-19, 2010, issue.

Three generations in the moving and storage business—the Illinois Dalton traditions continue with John Dalton.

By Marjorie Stradinger
Columnist

“How’s your Transylvanian farmers’ omelet?” I asked John Dalton over Silvia’s brunch in Enfield, Conn.

John went to trade school for auto mechanics before joining the Army in the ’70s.

“I didn’t take diesel mechanics to become a mechanic, but because it would help the trucking. After 12 months in a St. Louis trade school, I joined the Army, working in the motor pool,” he said.

“In military mechanics, you’re not really trying to fix something, you’re trying to get it going,” John added. “It’s imperative to have that vehicle moving: Jeeps, medium-sized trucks, forklifts. I was lucky to be stationed at a helicopter maintenance unit. Our wreckers were like cranes. I was always over at the hangars picking up, dropping in engines and transmissions for helicopters; it was easier to do that with a wrecker than with their cherry pickers.”

Silvia dropped by our table to offer wine. We gushed over her farmers’ casserole.

“So flavorful. I fry the bacon separately,” she beamed.

“Did you learn anything from the ’70s Army in Germany?” I returned to John.

“Love for beer and schnitzel,” he said. “Travel was a continuation of early education. I rode the trains everyplace. Most GIs take two vacations: One back to the States. I jumped on a train and got off in different places. Almost everybody in Europe is taught English as a second language.”

He knew he’d go back to the moving business, though.

“Being with Dad was magical,” John said. “He was part tour guide. There was nothing Dad couldn’t hold a conversation on—maybe geo-thermal physics—outside of that,” he smiled. “He was one of the world’s great conversationalists. I wish I had that ability. I’ll talk to people and entertain, but he was unbelievable, why we sat in the car for hours at a time. I can remember waiting for Dad to get done talking to some guy, and we sat there for two or three hours.”

“You light up when you talk about your dad,” I commented.

“Unbelievable tenacity,” John said. “He’d see a job that’s impossible. He’d say: ‘Let’s get to work on it. It’s not going to get done if we don’t start.’ In this business, if you don’t consistently do the impossible, you’re going to fail at it. Most last about three years. Damage claims will eat you alive. And it’s all lifting, bad food, late-night driving. I don’t smoke, never have; most drivers smoke. That adds up to being done in 20-25.”

“You’re ornery?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said.

After the Army, John worked for his uncle’s moving company and went on the road with his dad when he could. In 1979, he bought his first truck.

“What kind of investment?” I asked.

“Back then, about $30K,” he said.

“When a house was $30K! How much today?” I asked.

“About $160,000 or $170,000. You can still get a nice house for that in most of the country,” he said.

He drove for his uncle’s agency for about two years.

“I’m obstinate on what’s mine is mine,” he said. “And I get mine. If you agree to pay me that much, that’s what I get. I started getting mad and quitting when it didn’t work out the way it was supposed to. I started jumping around from van line to van line. About every year-and-a-half, I’d go with a new paint job.”

“You paint your truck with the brand,” I said.

“I was experienced…started looking for a place of my own…three years of verifiable experience. Drivers make contracts either directly with van lines, or with big bookers (agents), then become a driver for that van line,” he said. “The truck has the name of both the local agent and the national affiliate.”

“In 1989, I hurt my back for the fourth time,” he said. “Decided to go to college for civil engineering. It’s all about money. Second year of college, my uncle calls me and said he’s dying of cancer, do I want to buy the business. I loved this man. I took over Dalton Moving & Storage, started changing it so I could handle payments to him. I had a payroll. He operated it with one truck, and did all the work. The only way I was going to do it was to expand. I put two other movers out of business, hired drivers, trained people, and advertised. He way overpriced the assets; I refused to dicker with a dying man. Daltons screwing Daltons seemed to be a family trait. There’s too much chance of me losing. I’ve got a fragile ego. I don’t like losing.”

John turned Dalton Moving & Storage profitable in three years.

Marjorie Stradinger is a free-lance writer residing in Roscoe. She has covered food, drama, entertainment, health, and business for publications in California and Illinois for the past 25 years. She can be reached via e-mail at stradingerm@gmail.com.

From the Nov. 10-16, 2010 issue

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