BY PAT ANDREWS
“A chapter might be finished, but the story goes on…”
Debra “Debbie” Vollenweider believes the phrase is the only appropriate way to sum up her husband’s 52-year career at a Downriver landmark. The Detroiter Truck Stop in Woodhaven recently changed owners when it was sold to James Haslam III. He is the CEO of the Pilot Flying J truck stop chain and owner of the Cleveland Browns football franchise. More importantly, he is a longtime friend of the current owner, Bill Vollenweider. Turning over a legacy is always difficult, but Bill said he is confident that his father and founder, the late Edward Vollenweider, would be pleased that an old friend has taken the helm.
At age 68, the Grosse Ile resident and his wife are not sure what will be next, but it certainly will not be an alarm clock.
Bill literally followed in the giant steps of his father — a man who was a wartime hero and made deals and dreams happen as he built a commercial center in an up and coming city. The senior Vollenweider was born in Chicago in 1921 to Swiss immigrants and then grew up on a small dairy farm in Wisconsin. He joined the United States Air Force in World War II and as a B-26 bomber pilot flew 72 missions in the European Theater. His heroic efforts and that of his crews were fodder for the history books and one of the many planes he flew, the Flak Bait, is now housed at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.
The veteran returned to civilian life and studied at the University of Minnesota. He met and married Gloria Boehmke and they had two children, Edward, now deceased, and Bill. Gloria was a true partner, working alongside her husband and matching his long hours and devotion to their businesses.
For Bill, growing up was first a life of moving as his father made his mark known in the oil business and truck stop projects. He recalls moving eight times before the family left Hinsdale, Ill., and arrived in Trenton in time for his senior year in high school. One to quickly assimilate and a talented gymnast at his last school, he was able to enter the state finals that year for THS as a one-person team.
Bill’s father and his partners learned of an auction taking place at the corner of West Road and the I-75 Expressway. They had scouted the site and believed it to be the perfect location for the first truck stop coming up from the Ohio border. Bill said there were a number of speculators at the sale, but his father was prepared with a certified check and the 10-acre property where Lowes is now located passed into his hands.
Bill recalled that within a few days the Detroit, Toledo & Ironton Railroad attorneys called his father and suggested that a “mistake” had been made. They wanted the property back.
“My dad and his partners said they were not trying to play hard ball, but a deal was a deal.”
There were more calls and finally the railroad officials admitted that the land had been promised to the Ford Motor Co. for a stamping plant operation.
“My dad sold, made a profit and then purchased the property across the road. It worked out for everyone. That was 1965.”
That also was when Bill truly began his life’s work.
“I have pumped gas, been a short order cook, mechanic, cashier and store manager.”
He did take a break to attend the University of Wisconsin and earn a degree in marketing from California State University. Then he started the move up the ladder as restaurant manager, assistant general manager, general manager and then vice president.
The Detroiter, in Bill’s eyes, was really like a small city. There was the 24-hour restaurant, a barber shop, at one time a busy chiropractor practice, an extensive store with clothing and incidentals, showers, truck repair, gas, overnight parking, fast food items and even a popular book sale.
Gloria passed away in 1986 and Edward in 2008.
“Unless you are in the business, you do not realize the time commitment that the operation of a round-the-clock truck stop demands. Either my dad or my mother were always visible to the public and always working,” said Bill. “When my dad turned the reins over to me, he still came into the restaurant every morning to have breakfast, look through the mail and talk to the employees.”
Bill said when his father passed away, he heard heartfelt stories from so many customers, and moreover the workers.
“One individual started washing the windows here when he was 15 years old and he is still here, but has his own business. He has put four children through college and credits my father with stopping to talk to him as a teen — then an adult — and through the years. Dad would pass on his personal copy of the Wall Street Journal each day, advising him to read it thoroughly, learn how to invest and be a success. And, he is.”
Bill also hears regularly from a current pilot for Delta Airlines.
“He was our floor washer and could not praise my father enough for giving him a job, advice and respect. Our employees were very important to all of us. We had profit sharing and annual meetings designed to include them in our progress and plan for the future.”
Bill often made the money deposits at the Peoples Bank at West and Allen Roads. It was there he began to “court” his future wife, a native of Flat Rock. This month they will celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary.
“Deb was hesitant as she did not quite understand the Vollenweider way of life,” he said. “She grew up in a traditional household where her father came home each night in time for a family dinner. It did take adjusting.”
Learning that the business operation came first and that meant the employees, Debbie found herself and the couple’s daughter, Jamie, now 37, “dining out at the Detroiter.” She said it just “would not have seemed right to sit down for a family meal at home on a holiday when you knew the restaurant was open and your workers were there for you. You wanted to lead by example.”
Jamie grew up with the truck stop as a play house and worked there during high school and college. She now lives on Grosse Ile and is a specialty nurse at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit.
Bill was taking more of the reins of the business and getting more involved in the politics of the fuel business, a big part of the Detroiter’s operation.
“Ohio’s fuel taxes were so much lower and we were losing out on customers,” he said. “I had to get political in self defense.”
Bill joined with some 26 other owners in Michigan and went to Lansing to lobby for their businesses. From all parts of the state, they began to send a message to the governor and Legislature and their voices were heard.
“It also brought more business and income to the state,” he added.
Bill moved on to the national level with help from then Gov. John Engler and U.S. Sen. Spencer Abraham. He also made a friend in fellow Islander Heinz Prechter, well-known as a Republican supporter.
“Heinz was really a mentor to me and I found him to be one of the most remarkable and generous individuals. His untimely death in 2001 certainly had an impact on our family,” Bill said.
Prechter would often take the Vollenweiders on his private plane when Bill had business in Washington.
“He called me one day and told me to be at the airport. That is when I flew to Texas and met George W. Bush as he was making his Presidential bid announcement. I could not believe that I was really at the ranch and shaking hands with the future leader. I later had a second meeting in the Oval Office that Heinz arranged.”
Bill and Debbie also flew to Bavaria to mark the 25th wedding anniversary of Prechter and his wife, Waltrud “Wally” Prechter.
One of the major decisions Bill recently made for the business was to add the nationally known I-Hop franchise. It was a major overhaul of the old restaurant, calling for a new interior design and conformity, he admits, but a wise move. The menu has been a huge attraction for road travelers, truckers and local families.
Bill and Debbie are not shy about their personal love of travel, but say that most of their trips over the years have had to be long weekends or just a few days in length.
“We can now book longer than two days,” Debbie laughed. They have an overseas trip planned to celebrate their anniversary and that is probably the best present Bill could give his bride.
Bill and Debbie have always been active in community and church life. He served on the Woodhaven DDA and Debbie worked for many years at Nugget Leasing, along with helping out in the Detroiter office when needed.
The couple has no plans to leave the island.
“Those retirement communities are not for us,” she said. “It may take us a while to adjust. But, when it snows, it will be just our driveway to be plowed out.”