No days alike for TDOT Help Truck

Tom KingOur Town Heroes

Two years ago, a young woman was hanging on to a bridge railing on the I-275 south lane over the railroad tracks, bent on suicide. A few years earlier on I-40 east, near the Strawberry Plains exit, a man was darting in and out of traffic. Rodney “Sarge” Holbert drove up and stopped to help the man, who then laid down in front of his truck and asked Holbert to run over him and kill him. “Put me out of my misery,” he said.

All in a day’s work for this 39-year veteran of the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) in Knoxville’s Region 1 headquarters.

Sarge Holbert

Sarge, as everyone at TDOT calls him, is 63 and nearing retirement. He began working at TDOT in 1985. And in 1999 he was one of the original crew members of TDOT’s new Help Truck team here. “I loved it right away back then and I still love it today,” he said. “We make a difference everyday out on the road.”

The woman on the 1-275 bridge, he said, was in her mid-20s. “I spent about 30 minutes talking with her. She was not high on drugs or drunk,” he said. “She told me that she did not want to deal with life any longer. I told her that she had her whole life in front of her and suicide was the worst option. She finally calmed down and I pulled her back onto the bridge.”

TDOT celebrated his 30-year anniversary nine years ago and his plaque had his name correct – Rodney “Sarge” Holbert, he said. “I loved it and still do.”

Sarge has learned a lot in his career. “When I think about what we all do, we never know what we are walking into out there. Things can turn bad for someone in an instant. You can never, ever get complacent out here.”

Holbert is a native Knoxvillian, a 1979 graduate of Fulton High School who today lives in Mascot. After high school he joined the U.S. Army and survived basic training at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Fort Sill is the Army’s center for field artillery. His “Sarge” nickname came from his Army days. He was honorably discharged as a sergeant after serving in Germany as a “cannoneer.”

Prior to his Help Truck days, he spent 14 years in TDOT’s Maintenance Dept. He was not cleaning the building or taking out the trash. This maintenance job was highway and roadway maintenance. “It feels like during those years I filled in and repaired about a million potholes and moved tons of asphalt around,” he says. “Those were the days.”

And the largest pothole he’s even seen on our roads? “Not long ago after these rains I came across one that was three feet wide, four feet long and a foot deep inside. It was on I-640.”

Today he’s a TDOT first responder, certified in basic first aid, doing what he can when someone is injured, helping make sure they are ready to be transported in an ambulance, assuring that the scene is safely secured from traffic and accidents, assisting fire and law enforcement officers to make sure they are safe from being involved in an accident. He can help with hazardous materials as well.

Sarge deals with and sees and hears many things on the roads for four days/40 hours a week. So how are things out there these days? “Things have gotten worse. Road rage and road rage threats are really out of control. No one seems to have any tolerance for much of anything,” he said. “I have men and women pointing their fingers at me like they are going to shoot me and they’re doing it to one another too and too many times actually shooting. And these are people of all ages. I’m surprised cell phones have not killed more people. Drivers can’t put them down.”

Sarge has two adult sons and a young granddaughter, Lorelei, who has already claimed his attention and his heart. He’s not had an easy year. Last fall his wife of 38 years, Melinda, died at 60 from lung and pneumonia problems after having Covid. With retirement looming, he’s now the proud owner of a Tri-Glide Ultra Black (with no stripes) Harley-Davidson three-wheeler. “When I retire, I’m gonna ride different roads and see a lot of places I’ve not seen.”

And spend more time with that little granddaughter and enjoy his part-time gig at Dollywood. He’s a tram conductor who welcomes the visitors and reminds them of safety issues and what’s ahead inside the gates.

“I love this TDOT job – every day and I always have. It’s special to me because I helped build it from the ground up. You meet all kinds of people from all kinds of places and you get to help them. Best job in the world!!!!” he said. “Hands down.”

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


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