Tire Chains and Rosaries
A decal on the side of Alex Debogorski's big rig reads, "Trucking for Jesus." It doesn't hurt to be prayerful when you're hauling loads over frozen lakes and rivers to remote communities, mines and offshore drilling rigs. Debogorski has trucked for Jesus for more than 25 years, about the same amount of time that he has been a Knight of Columbus. In the past four years, his job, his faith and his wild, wooly character have made him famous. That's because Debogorski is not just any old trucker — he drives the ice roads of the north and is one of the main characters on the History Channel's hit reality series Ice Road Truckers.
"I've always been famous; it's just taken until now for everyone else to realize," said Debogorski, punctuating the joke with his signature hearty laugh. He added that his celebrity has given him the chance to share his faith and convictions with a huge audience.
'WHAT YOU SEE IS WHAT YOU GET'
Debogorski, 57, joined the Knights of Columbus at St. Patrick's Church in his hometown of Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Canada, in 1984 and has been an active member ever since. Surprisingly, his service as a member of Father Gathy Council 7725 (named after a priest who came north in the 1940s) is probably just as dangerous as his job hauling heavy loads over icy waterways. He does what is called "lock-up ministry."
"Alex goes into segregated areas of the prison and sits down with high-risk inmates," explained his council's financial secretary, Deacon Brian Carter. Carter added that Debogorski is good at reaching out to inmates because "with Alex, what you see is what you get. He lives his faith, and that's what we're all called to do."
Debogorski said that many of the inmates he prays with are Dene, members of an aboriginal group in northern Canada. "They are spiritually sensitive. They are very close to the land and very close to their roots," he explained.
But not every prisoner Debogorski meets is ready to pray. "We've had a fight between two guys right in the middle of a service where I had to jump over them and a guard had to break it up," he said. He also explained that some prisoners are drawn to him because of his fame and simply want to talk. "That's OK, too," he added. "Sometimes we just talk awhile, and it leads to a discussion about faith or prayer. Sometimes it doesn't."
And it's not just the inmates who are drawn to Debogorski because of his faith. He recently published a book of memoirs titled King of the Road: True Tales of a Legendary Ice Road Trucker (Wiley, 2010). Once the book hit shelves, Debogorski hit the road, trucking across America from coast to coast. Along the way, he met thousands of fans and handed out bookmarks and buttons that read "Team Alex." Many of those fans connect with Debogorski because of his willingness to publicly share his faith.
During a book tour stop at the largest truck stop in the United States — Iowa 80 in Walcott, Iowa — hundreds of people lined up to meet Debogorski. One of them was Joanne Briggs, a native of Springfield, Mass., who was on a long haul to California with her truck-driving husband. Briggs waited in the long line twice: once to give Debogorski a hug and to let him know that she prays for his health and safety, and a second time to pass along a prayer book as a gift of thanks for the faithful example he sets.
"There aren't enough people like Alex on TV: a good father and a good Christian," said Briggs.
FAITH, FAMILY AND FAME
Fatherhood and his faith are two of Debogorski's defining characteristics. "I was walking behind a hay bailer when I was 12 years old," he said, "and I decided I wanted to have 12 kids."
Debogorski has never wavered from that desire for a large family. He and his wife, Louise, have 11 children. The oldest is 38 and the youngest is 11. Most of the family still lives in Yellowknife, but a few of the children have left town to pursue education or work. Last Christmas, they were all home.
"It was packed here," said Louise, "but it was nice to have everyone together."
For his part, Alex hopes that his children will all have big families, too. "We've got 10 grandkids and one more on the way," he said. "We're hoping for 90 more."
The fact that so many of Debogorski's fans relate to him because of his faith and family seems to change the typical fan-celebrity relationship. Rather than a connection based on superficiality and hysteria, members of "Team Alex" instead share with him heartfelt, personal experiences. And that seems to go both ways: Debogorski will spend a 12-hour day meeting fans, shaking hands, listening to problems, and offering advice or a simple, "God bless you and your family." On the book tour, Debogorski would work all day without stopping if not for interruptions by the event staff for an occasional restroom, coffee or meal break.
At a book signing in Austin, Texas, Debogorski gave a talk about his life, his job and his faith. During the question-and-answer session, one fan lamented, "Why are you the only Christian we see on TV?" Debogorski is quick to give credit to the History Channel for allowing him to share his faith on Ice Road Truckers: "If you like it and you want to see more, write to History Channel and let them know that you appreciate it."
This is part of Debogorski's advocacy campaign for changes to television, attitudes and society in general. His celebrity is akin to having a political platform. And he is no stranger to politics.
In the early 1990s, he ran for mayor of Yellowknife, and his campaign is still well remembered by the community. As a way of setting himself apart from other candidates, Debogorski painted campaign signs on scrapped cars doors. While he didn't win the election, he surprised even himself with how many votes he received.
Running for office again is something Debogorski won't rule out, and he admits that his fame has made him a kind of international representative.
"I represent Yellowknife and the Northwest Territories," he said. Because driving on the ice roads and being on TV has taken him to Alaska, he added that people also see him as a representative of the United States when he is traveling outside of North America.
Debogorski takes this responsibility seriously. It's also part of how he connects with his religious fans as well as with prisoners. "I represent Christianity and my Roman Catholic faith when I'm out there," he said, "but I also represent those who struggle with human weakness."
Debogorski clearly enjoys his fame because of the chance it gives him to connect with so many different people. He calls the touring, the hand shaking and the TV work his "new job." He also acknowledges that it may not last. Fame is a fickle thing, especially in the world of reality TV. But Debogorski said that he will enjoy it for as long as it lasts. And if and when it's over, he will go back to what he has always done: driving the ice roads in the winter and making topsoil in the summer. No doubt his fans, especially those who are touched so deeply by his public expressions of faith, would miss him.
Loren McGinnis is a Yellowknife-based writer and film producer. He spent two months on the road with Alex Debogorski filming a documentary about the King of the Road book tour.