A Life Remembered | Gifford trucker had 'a lot of heart and willpower'

A Life Remembered | Gifford trucker had 'a lot of heart and willpower'

GIFFORD — Trucks and truckers were Tom Reitz's life. It was perhaps only fitting that Mr. Reitz — who drove a big rig for more than 40 years — died on the 12th anniversary of the TopGun LargeCar Shootout that he created in Rantoul.

Mr. Reitz, of Gifford, died on July 28 from leukemia. He was 62.

He lived for that show, said Mr. Reitz's wife, DaVeda: "He told me on Thursday when I left him, I said, 'I don't want to go (to the show).' He said, 'You go. You have a show to put on for me.'"

Mr. Reitz was asking his doctors right up until his death if he would be able to get out of the hospital and attend TopGun. His friends marveled at his tenacity.

"The doctors said, 'You'll never make such and such a date.' He proved them wrong two or three times," said Bryan Martin of Joplin, Mo., a former cast member of the cable TV show "Trick My Truck" and a friend of Mr. Reitz's for the past 10 years. "He was a driven, focused individual. A lot of heart and willpower."

Owensville, Ind., trucker Tom Davis agreed.

"Tom is the toughest SOB I've met in my life," Davis said. "He was proud of that (show). There was no way he should have made it" that long. "He was surviving for that show."

Davis said Mr. Reitz was a "good, good guy. He was a guy who could not mince words (and would) tell you what he was thinking and come back 30 seconds later and move on with it."

Martin said his friend, who "probably stood 6-2 or 6-3, could get as gruff as any guy you could ever know, but he was a caring and concerned individual for his friends."

Martin also holds a truck show in Missouri, and he and his friend frequently compared notes about how to make their events better.

"He put his heart and soul into it. When it came July, he put the show and its well-being ahead of his own job, personal finances and other obligations because he wanted to make sure that show was all it could be," Martin said.

Truck drivers all 'winners'

DaVeda Reitz said her husband decided to start TopGun because he didn't like the emphasis some truck shows put on competition.

"His passion was to have a show that 'I don't care what your truck looks like, you are welcome,'" she said. "He thought all truck drivers were winners."

Because of that, the show continued to grow every year of its 12-year life. Starting with just a handful of trucks, it grew to 200 this year.

Davis remembers attending his first TopGun show. He was under his truck "timing the tires" — moving them so they were lined up at exactly the same spot.

Davis said he saw someone walk up and then heard a gruff voice that asked him, "What the (expletive) do you think that you're doing? You boys get your (expletive) out from under there."

Davis said it was Mr. Reitz, who said TopGun was not the kind of show where competition was everything, and it all had to be perfect.

He said, "I want you to go in the light parade (of trucks that headed from Rantoul to Thomasboro and back) and meet people."

Davis said TopGun was more about having a good time and fellowshipping with other truckers.

The people's show

With Mr. Reitz's passing, some wonder if TopGun will fade away. Not if Reuben Spain of Potomac has anything to say about it.

"I am stepping up to the plate and going to pursue it and make it go with the other guys who were kind of hidden behind the scenes" organizing the show, Spain said.

Spain said he knows there were a lot of arrangements that Mr. Reitz had to make for the show every year, but he will learn as he goes.

Spain said this was the 11th year he had brought a truck to the show. He didn't enter the first year because he didn't think his rig was "prestige enough."

"I kind of got my butt chewed out" by Mr. Reitz, Spain said. "He said, 'That's not what the show is about.'"

Spain wants to keep that same focus.

"You see some of the guys who are professional 'show-ers.' But (TopGun) is all about the truckers who haul up and down the road. Tom created the show to teach people. If you wanted to go to the next level, you could. You could customize something and show it the next year."

Spain won Best of Show twice at TopGun. He was among those who honored Mr. Reitz at a memorial convoy of trucks Saturday from Lux Memorial Chapel, where Mr. Reitz's services were held, to his hometown of Gifford.

'He was my everything'

Mr. Reitz and his wife had been married for 31 years. Appropriately, they met "through trucks," she said.

He started behind the wheel hauling grain for his father at "16 or 17," she said. He went on to start his own trucking company.

She would frequently accompany him, and they've been across the country together.

"We would be gone for three weeks at a time," she said.

But as Mr. Reitz's health declined, his days on the road ended. He needed to stay close to home for his cancer treatments. Mr. Reitz sold his last truck, which he named "All About the Money," in February.

After reluctantly attending this year's TopGun show, DaVeda Reitz said she didn't want to leave once she got there. The truckers are like family.

"Man, are those people awesome," she said. "I was welcomed with open arms. They made it a lot easier."

But she knows it will be difficult without her husband.

"He was my everything," she said.

Dave Hinton is editor of the Rantoul Press, a News-Gazette Media community newspaper. For more, visit rantoulpress.com.

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