When it comes to being qualified, David McDonald could well be the poster boy as a HELP Truck professional for the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT). He is one of 17 dedicated first responders, constantly patrolling TDOT’s Region 1 charged with congestion control, helping drivers, safety and responding as needed.
His “beat” if you will includes I-75, I-40, I-275, I-640 and I-140 in Knox County. He never knows who he will be meeting and dealing with, the nature of want they need whether they are in their private vehicles or in the big rigs. The job also calls for him to assist law enforcement and emergency responders at accident scenes. There are times when he arrives at an accident site before anyone else responding.
McDonald is 55 and in his sixth year with TDOT. His skillset, life experiences and maturity are the perfect fit for this job.
- For 22 years he was an OTR (over-the-road) trucker for Saia LTL Freight, driving his 18-wheeler all over the southeast and eastern seaboard. He was honored for driving more than 2 million miles accident free.
- He was a reserve firefighter for Rural Metro Fire for 10 years with EMR (Emergency Medical Responder) training and a volunteer firefighter for Grainger County for three years.
- After four years and two overseas deployments in war zones, he was honorably discharged from the U.S. Marine Corps as an M-60 gunner. He also spent time as a Marine MP.
- He has been cancer free for 15 years after being diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in 2008, and he had five hours of open-heart surgery in 2022 to repair a valve that was a birth defect.
- It does not hurt that he was in the National Honor Society and the Beta Club at Eustace (TX) High School in east Texas. You have to be tough to be a nose guard at 6 feet and 160 pounds on any football team. He also played offensive tackle and was a shot putter on the Eustace track team.
Life has not been easy. He is the youngest of seven children. He was looking forward to college. “On my graduation night after it was all over my dad walked up to me and congratulated me and put the keys to a truck he’d bought in my hand,” McDonald remembers well.
“All he said was that and he and Mom were splitting since everyone is now out of school and that I was on my own and by the way you have to make payments on the truck. And he was gone.”
His first thought – “Well, so much for going to college.” He knew jobs could be had in Dallas vs. in Eustace. He moved there, lived in a duplex and found a minimum wage job in a warehouse. That got old and after 18 months he went to a military recruiting office.
“I went there interested in the Air Force, but their guy was out to lunch,” he said. “Then the Army recruiter started talking and I didn’t like them and I didn’t want to be on a boat. The Marine guy sweet-talked me for 30 minutes and I signed the papers. One of the best things in my life. The Corps changed me.
“The military really helped me learn about having a passion for helping people and being in a tight-knit group, taking care of one another. The camaraderie and fellowship at TDOT are the same way. I really enjoy everyone I work with. It’s how I’m wired.”
He was part of the Gulf Battery/3rd Battalion/10th Marines/2nd Division.
His first deployment to the Mediterranean began the day after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait that led to Desert Storm. His unit was then sent to Liberia to evacuate the American Embassy in Monrovia. Dangerous times for him.
Days in the help truck can be dicey as well. These TDOT pros see a lot out there. Near downtown on I-40 a car crashed into the rear of a trailer being pulled by a landscaping truck. “I was close by and the first one there. Both people in the car were unconscious and both had needles sticking in their arms. They had overdosed and the medical guys used Narcan and saved both,” he said.
He sees mattresses flying off cars and pickup trucks. Last spring he helped a couple on I-640 who were in the middle of a domestic dispute. She kicked the man out after he hit her while she was driving. She stopped and drove off. The man was arrested at a nearby gasoline station.
“Being in the military and the fire business, I’ve seen a lot of traumatic things happen to people so I can handle those OK,” he added. “What I see a lot are drivers and others stranded on the interstates who are really terrified by the speed of the cars and trucks. You have to calm them down and get ’em on their way as quick as possible. We see plenty of horrible things in the bad accidents.”
After he’s worked his four shifts a week at TDOT, he heads out to drive some more. His part-time job is driving a parking lot tram at Dollywood on Saturdays and Sundays. He began this job last September after his open-heart surgery.
McDonald is all about family. Ask him how he relaxes and gets away from the stress he has a one-word answer – family. He and wife Danielle have been married for 35 years. Son Brandon is 29 and the oldest of two kids. Hayden is 9 and a fourth grader at Gibbs Elementary.
“We had Hayden during our 25th anniversary year and what better way to celebrate,” he said. “She was a preemie born at 32 weeks and weighed just 3 pounds. She was at Children’s (East Tennessee Children’s Hospital) for four weeks and she’s perfect today in every way. We’re very blessed.”
Church is but a short walk from their Gibbs area home – Fairview Baptist. “A lady told me long ago that if a family stays in church together you’ll always take care of each other. Great advice.”
Tom King has been the editor of newspapers in Texas and California and also worked in Tennessee and Georgia. If you have someone you think we should consider featuring, please email him at the link with his name or text him at 865-659-3562.