11:15am

Wed November 7, 2012
Heavy Lifting

Towing Hall of Fame Honors Unusual Heroes

A tow truck from the early 20th century is on display at the International Towing and Recovery Hall of Fame and Museum in Chattanooga.
A tow truck from the early 20th century is on display at the International Towing and Recovery Hall of Fame and Museum in Chattanooga.
Credit Mary Helen Miller / WUTC

Halls of fame tend to be for athletes and performers. Our cultural heroes. But not so in Chattanooga. Here, there's a place that honors a group in a far more practical line of work: tow truck operators. The newest class in the hall of fame was just inducted. 

TRANSCRIPT

Gene McKinney drove his purple tow truck up to Chattanooga from West Blocton, Alabama. He's here for a tow truck beauty contest, and this behemoth is a looker.

GENE McKINNEY: TV on the dash, DV in the sleeper. Climb on up in it and look.. Hardwood floors.

MILLER: Wow. It does have hardwood floors!

Not to mention, an impressive sound system.

The tow truck show is part of a weekend-long towing convention, held earlier this fall. More than a thousand people attend the the Chattanooga event, most of them towers.  Chattanooga is, after all, the birthplace of towing. It all started here in 1916 when a Model T Ford got stuck in a creek. A man named Ernest Holmes spent many hours pulling it out with the help of several men.

CHERYL MISH: And he said, you know, there's got to be a better way. So he went to work, and developed the first wrecker.

That's Cheryl Mish. She's the executive director of the International Towing and Recovery Hall of Fame and Museum in Chattanooga. There are 18 historic tow trucks here, including one used by Allied troops during World War II and the world's fastest tow truck.

MISH: Most people have never even heard of that.  But back in 1979 on the Talladega speedway, he reached an average speed of 109 miles per hour.

In the corner, Mish points out a little yellow tow truck from Japan. It's about the size of a Smart Car, and it looks miniature next to the others.  

MISH: He's the smallest one we've got in here.

MILLER: Oh it's adorable. It looks like a children's car or something.

MISH: It does.

Inside the museum, there's also the hall of fame, with portraits of nearly 300 upstanding towers. A good batting average might help get you into baseball's hall of fame, but towing is a different game. The criteria have more to do with good citizenship than incredible feats of lifting.

Outside the museum, there's another honorary wall for something more somber. It's a memorial for those killed in the line of duty. At this year's "Wall of the Fallen" ceremony, Ken Cruse speaks to a crowd of several hundred.

KEN CRUSE: The names on these stone walls, bronze plaques: towers. No different than you. These are heroes not by choice, but just doing the job they like to do, and making the difference.

Family members come to the front of the crowd to accept a rose, as Ruth Landau reads names of the dead, one by one.

RUTH LANDAU: Travis L. Danner. Bandera, Texas, 21 years old…

MISH: You know, we're losing an average of 60 to 75 towing operators a year.

Again Cheryl Mish, the museum director.

MISH: But these guys will get up at 2 o'clock in the morning and come get you off the side of the road.

Tow truck operators have lobbied state governments, and more and more states are including wreckers in their "move over laws," which require passing cars to give space to emergency vehicles on the side of the highway. Still, distracted drivers are killing more tow truck operators than ever.

Towers put their lives at risk, to do a job that so often casts them as the villain. Police or angry property owners send them to move offensively parked cars. Or wreckers show up like the grim reaper, to haul off a broken down vehicle.

MISH: It's a, it's a… thankless job.

The International Towing and Recovery Hall of Fame and Museum is the place in Chattanooga that the locals point out to out-of-towners with a chuckle. Sure, it might not be as glamorous as the rock and roll hall of fame, and you've probably never heard of the inductees. But here's a place that celebrates a different kind of greatness. The people who perform a mundane but necessary task. And for towers, this hall of fame is on their bucket list.

For WUTC's Around and About, I'm Mary Helen Miller.