Larry LaRue: It’s been a long haul for former felon

Tacoma college helps him build better life as truck driver than he had as drug dealer

Staff WriterMay 17, 2014 

George West has found success as a truck driver and gives much credit to his instructor and now friend Wade Westphal, shown in the mirror. West, a three-time felon, is now a supervisor of truckers in the North Dakota oil fields, and Wesphal continues to teach long haul trucking at Bates Technical College.

PETER HALEY/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

With the history George West was dragging behind him — three felony convictions, three prison terms — Wade Westphal wasn’t certain Bates Technical College could help him.

“We’ve had guys like this come in before, and I took him in my office and closed the door,” said Westphal, a commercial truck driving instructor at the Tacoma school. “I told him, ‘With your background, I don’t know … but we’ll try.’

“I told him he had to stay out of trouble and believe in himself.”

And today, a little more than 21/2 years later?

“I’d like to adopt him as a son,” Westphal said, grinning.

As success stories go, West’s is improbable. Bates College was part of it, as was Westphal, who became a friend and mentor as well as his teacher.

West believes it was his mother, Wilma, who made him change his life.

“My third arrest, I was charged with something I wasn’t guilty of, but I was guilty of other things as bad or worse,” he said. “My mother visited me and we cried. She said, ‘I had more planned for you than this.’

“I was facing a five-year sentence, and she said, ‘I think I’ve got five years left, but I don’t know how much more than that I’ve got.’

“I went to prison in October 2005.

“My mother died in May 2006.”

West was 39, the father of three children, facing another four-plus years behind bars.

“I realized I’d never grown up, and it was past time to do it,” he said. “I wanted to become someone my mother would be proud of, but to do that I had to find me.”

Born in the Tri-Cities, West had sisters scattered across the West — two in Tacoma, one in Las Vegas, another in the Tri-Cities. They are honest, hard-working, like his mother was.

That was rarely the case with West.

“The first time I was arrested was in 1990, and I was selling drugs. In my neighborhood I’d see these guys doing things, their pockets overflowing with money, driving fast cars,” West said. “My parents would say, ‘It’s wrong’ — and it is — but it’s glorified. I tried it and was really good at it.

“Then I realized the police are really good, too.”

That first conviction cost him two years. When he came out, he was free for two years before being caught and convicted of delivering drugs. That one cost him three years.

“I stayed out of trouble for 10 years after that, but I just didn’t have any focus,” he said. “What I thought I was best at was selling drugs. I liked the status. I could pull up in front of a club and leave my car running at the curb, money on the dashboard and no one would touch it.

“I was giving more money away than most people made.

“They caught me, gave me my just due.”

That third time, West was convicted of drug distribution.

Then his mother died, and he began taking classes in prison. When he got out, he heard about the benefits of driving a truck.

“A friend told me, ‘You know they got oil boom in North Dakota, and if you have a commercial driver’s license it’s like a Willy Wonka Chocolate Factory golden certificate,’” West said.

He went to Bates College and met with Westphal.

“I heard his story and listened to him, saw him cry,” Westphal said. “One thing he did, most people in his situation don’t — he took full responsibility for all he’d done.”

West threw himself into the classroom work and the driving, and remembered Westphal’s teaching style in the truck cab.

“When you did something wrong, he didn’t lecture you, he just laughed,” West said. “You’d get stuck doing something the wrong way and he wouldn’t say a word, just laugh. The goal for me was to have him drive in my cab and not laugh.”

After completing the two-year program last June, West was ready to drive — but couldn’t leave the state to pursue those oil fields until he got permission from his probation officer.

When he was hired by BOH Inc. in Williston, North Dakota, he drove oil and delivered water for hydraulic fracturing.

He liked the work, liked the company and set about trying to make himself indispensable.

Late last year, the company made him a drivers supervisor at a salary of $60,000, which is better than it sounds.

“I work two weeks, then take two weeks off,” West said. “I come back to Tacoma, stay with one of my sisters, then go back to Williston.”

In one of his visits to the Northwest last summer, he met a Federal Way medical assistant. Now they’re engaged.

Last week, he and his mentor-friend at Bates got together — something they do most every time West comes back.

“One of the reasons I thought he had the chance was his desire to make something of himself,” Westphal said. “He’s a good driver. He’s become a good man.”

Larry LaRue: 253-597-8638 larry.larue@ thenewstribune.com

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