Being a woman truck driver is not always easy. To survive in this male-dominated industry, you have to be a pretty tough girl – or at least have a tough persona. Theresa DeSantis of Apache Junction, Arizona has been truckin’ for 30 years, and although things are lot better for female drivers these days, over the years she has been called a few not-so-nice names along the way. One of those names sounds a lot like “witch” (you know the one we are talking about). Not wanting to use foul language and be “that person” she had been called, she jokingly took on a “witchy” persona – partly for fun and partly to create a “don’t mess with me” attitude. She even named her truck, a classic 1985 Peterbilt 359 she has owned since it was new, “The Witches Inn” – but she really isn’t “witchy” at all.
Born and raised in Ware, Massachusetts, Theresa (50) grew up in an average blue-collar home – her mom worked in a textile mill and her dad in a foundry. Theresa knew nothing about trucks until a friend’s family built a house down the street from hers. With this construction project came trucks – and love. This “friend” would eventually become her husband of 30 years, and would also be the one to introduce Theresa to her other love – trucks. Theresa and this friend, Dean DeSantis, got together in high school and have been together ever since. His family was in the construction business, so trucks became a big part of their life, as well.
Dean graduated from high school in 1980 and then Theresa in 1982. The two were married the following year. Back then, Dean ran gravel trucks and gave Theresa her first ride in a crude 1969 Autocar with a “box” for a passenger seat. Somehow, that far-from-glamorous ride sparked an interest in Theresa. The following year, she took her driving test in a 1977 Chevy Bison and got her CDL. Although she ran over a bunch of cones during the test, the instructor passed her with the agreement that she would not go out alone, without her husband, until she could back up better. For a few years, backing up was not something she did well, until one day when someone shamed her on the CB, which prompted her to spend the entire following weekend at home practicing until she finally got it right.
The newly-married couple drove together for a while until Theresa got her own truck – a 1977 Kenworth cabover with a 5+4 setup. This was a “triple digit” truck – it could really move. But, not long after getting it, the cabover began having engine issues so they decided to order a brand new truck – the 1985 Peterbilt 359 you see here. And this was no ordinary 359 – it had a limited edition “calendar” paint job (only 250 were made). Powered by a Caterpillar 3406B and featuring a 60-inch flattop sleeper and a short hood, the truck was also equipped with a 13-over transmission, 3:90 rear gears, and a modest 252-inch wheelbase.
Back in those early days, Theresa and Dean ran a lot of miles together – sometimes in the same truck together, and sometimes in separate trucks, following one other. At first, the 359 was “theirs” until Dean needed a second truck – from then on, for the most part, it has been her truck. Still living back east, they began hauling some loads out to Arizona and fell in love with the desert climate. Both of them decided that this was the place they wanted to eventually call home. But, for now, it would have to wait.
In 1986, Dean took a local driving job (using the 359) so Theresa got a “regular” job at a textile mill. This lasted for about a year. After that, the couple started pulling dump trailers over-the-road, hauling waste products and recyclables from Connecticut to Ohio. This is when Dean bought the second truck – a 1987 Peterbilt 379. They ran this haul, together, a few times a week, until 1993. Over this six-year period, they built their operation up to five trucks and trailers. Eventually, they sold the entire company, except for the 359, to Dart Trucking in Ohio, where Dean ended up in management and Theresa went to work in the office.
After about a year, Theresa went back on the road in her 359, hauling mostly haz-mat loads for Dart. Dean left Dart in 2002 and went to work for Clean Harbors Environmental Services, an industrial waste hauler based in Massachusetts. The following year, in 2003, Theresa switched over to Clean Harbors, as well.
Around this time, the couple bought a beautiful piece of property in Apache Junction, Arizona and built their dream home. At the time, they still lived in Massachusetts, but Theresa could get loads out to Arizona every few weeks so she could stop and make sure everything was okay at the house. Eventually, Theresa moved into the house in Arizona and Dean stayed in Massachusetts. In 2005, Dean left Clean Harbors and took a job at Heritage Transport, another environmental waste hauler, but this one was based in Indianapolis, Indiana. And this is how it has been since then – Dean lives in Indianapolis, Theresa lives in Apache Junction, and the two see each other every few weeks when Dean comes out to Arizona. Theresa now runs exclusively out of Clean Harbors’ Phoenix plant, hauling various industrial waste products and recyclables to Salt Lake City and Los Angeles every week.
Over the years, the 359 has been painted a few times, but always with its signature calendar paint scheme. In 2009, Theresa decided that it was time for the truck, which was starting to look tired, to get a full rebuild. She took it to Joplin Peterbilt in Missouri where it spent eight weeks. While there it got new frame rails, new paint, an upgraded suspension and a new hood. Stretching the original wheelbase out to 285 inches, the truck was also fitted with a modern Pete Low-Air suspension and the original short hood was rebuilt and extended – this was a very costly and time-consuming job! At that time, the truck also got new fuel tanks, 7-inch pipes, diamond-plate deck plating, and a little bit of bling. In 2010, Theresa took the truck to her first show in Las Vegas and took 1st Place in the “First Show” category. This is where we first met Theresa.
In 2011, Theresa decided that it was time to update the 359s drivetrain. The original Cat 3406B was still in it and still running strong, but it had close to two million miles on it. Wanting to upgrade a bit, she had Tri-State Diesel in Enfield, CT pull the motor and replace it with a Cat 3406C with air-to-air (she sold the original motor to a guy who is still running it today). Tri-State also upgraded the transmission to an 18-speed and switched out the original rear ends with 3:73s. With the new engine came a smaller condenser, so the air conditioning system had a hard time cooling off that old cab and sleeper. To remedy the problem, Dean and Theresa added a second condenser behind the front bumper, and then had Valley Chrome fabricate her a new bumper with four slits in it to allow air to flow to the condenser. It all worked out perfectly and, once again, Theresa could cruise across the hot desert in a cool and comfortable cab.
Earlier this year, Theresa decided to take her truck to the big show in Louisville, Kentucky. In preparation for that show, she did a little more work to her truck, which included installing WTI single-hump fiberglass fenders and Talladega County Fiberglass cab and sleeper extensions with LED strip lights. She also added picket elbows to her exhaust, upgraded all of her lights to LEDs, and covered her stainless visor with matching red vinyl (she didn’t want to paint it). She also did a little work inside, although most of the interior is still stock and original. After insulating the entire interior with HushMat panels, Theresa and Dean, with help from their neighbor Jim Bainter, installed a custom black bamboo wood floor in the cab and sleeper. Theresa also had the original seats reupholstered and had “witchy” images (boots on one and a broom on the other) embroidered into the headrests. In recognition of her efforts, Theresa took home the coveted (and beautiful) Best of Show trophy in the Working Bobtail class at MATS in Louisville last March. Not bad for a 30-year-old truck with 2.5 million miles on it!
Right now, looking “old school” is all the rage, but this truck really is “old school” – it has no power windows, no power mirrors, no tilt wheel, no cruise control, and it does not have a Unibilt sleeper – and that is just the way Theresa likes it. Well, actually, since this is pretty much the only truck she has driven for the past 30 years, she doesn’t know any better – and doesn’t really want to. This truck is not CARB-compliant, but she plans on running it until someone tells her that she can’t. At that point, she wants to make a camper out of it. Truth is, she loves this truck as much today as the day she got it.
Dean and Theresa never had any children, but Theresa still runs with her “kids” – two little dogs, Maxine (a Maltese) and Matilda (a Shorkie, which is a mix between a Shih Tzu and a Yorkie). These two dog’s feet never touch the ground, as she carries them everywhere, not wanting their feet to get dirty. She also chose these types of dogs because they do not shed. Theresa is very particular and a bit of a clean-freak. She even washes her truck every week, by herself, because she does not trust anyone else to do it.
With two vinyl-covered Plexiglass panels that say “The Witches Inn” sitting on top of her dash and pointing out the windshield on each side, Theresa kind of has to have a little attitude to be a woman on the road – even today. And although the little 4’-11” tall dynamo is not a “witch” at all, she’s been called similar-sounding terms throughout the years, so she decided to just play the part. But don’t let her small size fool you – she can still pull her heavy extended hood open without any assistance!
Running an older truck every day comes with its problems. Theresa wanted to thank a few people who are always there to help her when Dean is not around and she needs it, including Delbert, Max, Perry and Debra. She also wanted to send out special thanks to Tri-State Diesel, The Larson Group (Peterbilt of Joplin and Peterbilt of Louisville), Empire Caterpillar in Phoenix, and her local Peterbilt dealer in Phoenix, AZ. Most importantly, she wanted to thank her husband, Dean, for all of his mechanical and moral support, as well as her parents, Daniel and Susan Witt, for all of their help over the years. We at 10-4 would like to thank our friend and past cover trucker (twice) Ron Kelsey for keeping Theresa “on our radar” for all of these years.
Theresa DeSantis believes in the power of perseverance. Her tenacity and “never quit” attitude has allowed her to not only succeed but flourish in trucking. She has been married for 30+ years, trucked for 30+ years, and driven the same rig for 30+ years – that says a lot about who she is. “A truck will last forever if you take care of it,” she says – and she does – and it has! And although some out there might think she is a little witchy, we like to think of her as “The Not-So-Wicked Witch of the West.” And if she ever gets that broken broom fixed, she just might ditch this old 359 once and for all!