SALINA — Steve Dorzweiler doesn't remember much about his father Leo, who was killed in a farm accident when Steve was only 21 months old.
But after more than 36 years, one image that still stands out in Steve's memory is being in the sleeper cab of a Peterbilt semi truck and watching his dad clutch the big rig's steering wheel between three fingers, which was no easy task.
"When he bought that truck, he ordered every single option for it except power steering," Steve said.
Leo bought the semi in 1979 for more than $48,700, including trade-in. For the next two years, he worked as an independent trucker, driving his rig throughout the U.S. hauling mostly grain oil field piping to provide for his wife Judy and son Steve, born Jan. 19, 1980.
On Oct. 27, 1981, Leo drove his semi to a job site in rural Hays, where he was electrocuted when a winch truck on which he was balancing pipes ran into power lines.
"He was loading oil fuel pipe on a county farm, working with his brothers, balancing a bundle of pipes held together with a cable," Steve said. "When the truck backed up, it came into contact with power lines. My dad was holding onto a pipe, and 7,200 volts of electricity went through him. There was nothing anyone could do."
Leo was just 25 years old, his son said.
"I was 21 months old and my mother was 25," said Steve, now 38 and manager of human resources for the Salina School District. "I don't remember his voice or what he looked like other than from pictures, which is not the same as recalling it from memory."
What he never forgot is his father's semi truck, which Leo loved so much that Judy had a picture of it carved on his tombstone in the Catherine Cemetery in Ellis County, near where he was raised on a farm east of Hays.
Although his mother still continued to make loan payments on the truck for awhile, Steve said she finally sold it to a Russell business that transported acid to oil wells in the area. From there, the Dorzweilers lost track of the truck for the next three decades.
After Steve grew up and started his own family with his wife Angela, principal at Oakdale Elementary School, he often would wonder what happened to his dad's beloved semi. He hoped whoever had it now was treating it with care and respect.
"It was the identity of who my father was," he said.
As it turned out, the truck was closer to home than he'd ever imagined.
Steve said he mentioned one day to his uncle, his dad's sister's husband, "that it would be neat if I could find dad's old semi truck."
"He said he knew who owned it," Steve said.
Its current owner was A.J. Pfannenstiel, a Hays farmer who had purchased the truck more than 20 years ago. The trouble was, he was one of those guys who kept something forever once he bought it and wasn't interested in selling it to a previous owner's son or anyone else.
"Then one of his farm hands hit a corner of the semi with a tractor tire, which made A.J. mad, so he said to sell the thing," Steve said. "They put it up for sale and had actually sold it to someone else. Then A.J.'s boy reminded him that I wanted it. So A.J. called the other guy and said he couldn't sell it to him. It was a blessing for me."
Steve paid $4,000 for the truck in September 2017 but said he would have paid $15,000 just to have it in the family again.
When the truck was sold by Steve's mom, it had 200,000 miles on it. Now it had 1,400,000 miles, along with a cracked engine head that made driving it impossible.
"It sat in a mechanic's shop for a year, then John Dreiling with Dreiling Field Service repaired it and made it possible to be driven to Salina," Steve said. "I had to get my CDL license to drive it back to Salina."
The night before he went to Hays to retrieve the truck, Steve said he was so excited he couldn't sleep. However, when he arrived at the Pfannenstiel farm, Steve was shocked to see an aged, dented and rusted truck that looked nothing like the sleek, freshly painted machine he remembered his dad driving.
"But when I climbed on it and saw the cab and sleeper, I knew it was his truck," he said. "Just to make sure, I asked my mom to find the VIN number, and they matched."
It's been less than two months since Steve drove his dad's semi back to Salina, where it sits in the driveway of his home on the east side of town. He said restoring the truck will be a long investment of time and money that will include rebuilding the motor, sandblasting the frame and repainting it.
Steve has no idea what he'll do with the semi after he restores it.
"I said that I'd maybe haul something in a parade," he said. "It's not about utility for me, it's about the memories, bringing back my dad's legacy. It's my labor of love."
As Thanksgiving Day approaches, Steve said he's incredibly thankful to be able to have this personal, physical reminder of his dad near him again.
"Out of such as sad event, this is a piece of my dad that I can still have," he said. "It's a physical memory of him — something he owned, something he touched, something he used to put food on the table for his family.
"I can't have my dad back, but having his truck in the driveway is like having his spirit here."