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Leroy Rentz and the motor “roadeo”

LeRoy Rentz just got back from competing in a rodeo, although it wasn’t the sort of event most people think of when they hear the word “rodeo”. It was held at Minnesota State community college in Rochester, and the “horses” took premium diesel fuel instead of oats.  

Rentz placed nearly in the top third of bus drivers from all over Minnesota who came to compete in challenges testing everything from properly checking their buses for explosive devices to the appearance of their uniforms. The Minnesota Public Transit Association’s “2013 Minnesota Bus Roadeo”  (apparently bus drivers, like reporters, are quite fond of puns) took place the weekend of July 19. Rentz represented Wadena County’s Friendly Rider Transit system and placed eleventh out of 29 other participants from cities like Duluth, Rochester and St. Cloud.

Those familiar with Rentz’s past probably aren’t that surprised he did well at the rodeo. Born and raised in Wadena, Rentz drove a big rig for the first time on a run from there to International Falls while working for his dad’s trucking firm -- when the younger Rentz was just 12 years old. If his dad had two loads to haul, he would have Leroy follow him in another truck. Leroy fondly remembers being paid in hamburgers and malts, but not everyone in the Rentz family was keen on the idea.

“Mom would scream bloody murder,” he remembered with a grin.  

After he graduated from high school, Rentz detoured to serve in Vietnam. When he got out of the military he got back into the trucking game, traveling all over the U.S. and Canada. The job meant being away from his wife for long stretches at a time, but it was something the couple took in stride, he said.

“I didn’t have the college education and all the stuff that goes with it,” he said. “Truck driving paid --by far-- better than anything, so I did it. My wife and I decided when I bought my first truck, if we wanted anything in life, we was going to have to sacrifice something. If that was our time together, so be it.”

Rentz then spent decades driving semis to support his family. When a truck Rentz bought was destroyed in a fire (two months after he made the last payment on it) he went to work for Genmar Transportation, which eventually became bankrupt. After half a century as a truck driver, Rentz spent two years out of a job until one day he ran into the head of WDC’s bus garage in Walmart who invited him to go to work as a substitute school bus driver. In 2011, he noticed a job posting in the paper for Friendly Rider for 20 hours of driving per week.

He worked part time both for WDC and Friendly Rider until accepting a full-time gig at the latter. The job finally lets him stay in Wadena to be with his family: he can go to his grandkids’ wrestling meets, assorted family picnics and visits to the cabin on Rush Lake.

“We do family stuff together every weekend,” Rentz said. “It’s got its good points.”