FAIRBANKS — Dressed in a pair of black Carhartt bibs and sporting long, white hair past his shoulders with a bushy white beard and tattoo-covered arms, Thomas McGee doesn’t fit the mold of your prototypical driving instructor.
But sit in the back seat of his Chevy Cobalt and listen to McGee teach a young driver the rules of the road and there’s no mistaking he’s good at his job.
“Remember, we talked about this stop sign the other day,” McGee said to 16-year-old Amber Szmyd as she pulled up to a stop sign after leaving the parking lot at West Valley High, where McGee had just picked her up for a two-hour driving lesson. “That’s a $150 ticket and four points.”
When he asks Szmyd how she’s doing and she replies that she’s tired because she was up late studying for a biology test she forgot about, McGee takes note.
“Now that we’ve had that conversation I’ll adjust the route and incorporate that into the lesson to teach her the importance of being well rested when you get behind the wheel,” he tells a reporter and photographer riding in the back of the car.
“I had coffee,” a guilty Szmyd said in her defense.
McGee steers her toward what he calls his “Sleeper Run,” a monotonous 70-mile roundtrip out the Richardson Highway to the Knotty Shop and back that he uses to teach students about driving at highway speeds. It’s one of four regular routes that McGee uses to train his drivers.
“You just changed lanes without signaling,” McGee calmly said to Szmyd as she drives on University Avenue.
“I know,” she said defensively.
As they approach a green light at the intersection at Geist Road and the Johansen Expressway, McGee reminds her how to properly negotiate an intersection.
“Cover the brake, not the gas pedal, and resume acceleration when you get through,” he tells Szmyd.
So it goes for the next two hours as McGee steers Szmyd this way and that way, talking about finding alternate paths of travel in different situations and using “consistent, steady acceleration.” He tells her to blend into traffic, not turn into it, when merging. He reminds her to check her mirrors every three to five seconds so she’s constantly aware of what’s going on around her and to look through her path of travel to anticipate potential situations.
When Szmyd enters a series of roundabouts in North Pole, McGee tells her she doesn’t need to signal entering the roundabout but does if she’s exiting or staying in as a way of communicating with other drivers who are entering it. When she goes through a yellow light in North Pole, McGee tells her it’s OK because of the icy conditions and the light didn’t turn red. Only once, when Szmyd drives too far past a stop sign, does McGee hit the special brake on the passenger side of the car.
All the while, McGee talks in a calm, even and instructional tone as if he were in a classroom, not a Cobalt.
McGee opened Cherokee Riders 10 years ago after being “coerced” by some friends into being a motorcycle coach and a subsequent plan to open a motorcycle driving school fell apart.
“I thought if I’ve got this kind of patience for motorcycle training, maybe I could be a driver ed teacher,” McGee said.
So McGee, 61, quit his job as parts manager at the local Harley Davidson dealer, the Farthest North Outpost, bought a new Chevy Cobalt, and opened Cherokee Riders. These days, McGee is on his second Cobalt — the first one lasted more than 300,000 miles and the current one has 180,000 and counting — and is still going strong. McGee teaches driver education year round and motorcycle training from April through October.
Most of McGee’s clients at Cherokee Riders are teenagers whose parents don’t want to teach them how to drive or are looking for a discount on insurance coverage.
“Parents don’t want to teach in this stuff,” McGee said, referring to snow- and ice-covered roads.
The state-certified class, which costs $525, consists of eight classroom hours and eight hours of supervised driving, which is done in four two-hour, one-on-one, sessions. The classroom portion covers thinks like insurance coverage, maintenance, traffic laws and driving in extreme winter conditions.
Once on the road, the thing McGee focuses on most is teaching defensive driving techniques or “teaching them how to recognize things in advance so they can act before something happens instead of when it happens,” as he put it.
“It’s those little things, like what are you supposed to do when a car comes out, what’s the difference between a single-arrow and double-arrow merge, stopping past stop signs, failing to slow down for intersections, not looking farther ahead,” McGee said. “I tell them how to do it and why we do it this way so they understand the process and know the importance of performing a simple maneuver the correct way.”
With three mirrors strategically situated in front of him, McGee can see vehicles on both sides and from behind, as well as watch students’ eyes to make sure their eyes are where they’re supposed to be without staring at them.
“It’s my responsibility to constantly be aware of what’s going on around them,” McGee said.
In his 10 years of teaching, McGee has had only two students get in accidents, both of which were minor. One student was rear-ended by another driver at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and another put a car in a ditch on the Steese Highway while McGee was teaching him how to control power slides.
McGee said he gets emails and letters from former students who say they can still hear his voice in the back of their heads when they get into certain situations on the road. He recalled the driver of a FedEx truck who stopped him one day to thank him. The driver was a former student.
“That makes it worth my while,” he said.
Though it was only the second of four driving lessons with McGee, Szmyd said he was “pretty cool” and she had already learned a lot.
Neither does McGee look like a local politician but that hasn’t stopped him from serving on the North Pole City Council for most of the last 15 years.
“I like a good debate, and I enjoy the interaction with residents,” said McGee, who has lived in North Pole for 20 years.
The night before, the council was able to rework the budget to prevent cutting $49,000 from the city fire department, which would have meant going to three- instead of four-man shifts.
“We found a budget item for a backhoe we really didn’t need and were able to keep four-man shifts,” he said.
One image McGee fits is that of a biker, and it’s one he lives up to. McGee owns two custom Harley-Davidsons, a 2009 Screaming Eagle Fat Bob, and a 2007 Ultra Classic Screaming Eagle Electro Slide that he stores in Minnesota.
He and his significant other, Star Davis, had the privilege this summer of leading the Parade of Flags and carrying the Fairbanks Harley owners’ group flag at Harley Davidson’s 110th anniversary celebration in Milwaukee during Memorial Day weekend.
Even when roads were covered with ice as a result of freezing rain a few weeks ago, McGee only canceled classes on one day and that wasn’t because of road conditions; it was because traffic signals weren’t working as a result of a power outage and McGee said he didn’t trust other drivers.
“When we have these conditions I leave it up to the student if they want to learn how to deal with it,” McGee said. “If they’re so stressed out with the conditions they’re not going to learn anything.”
Not even the November rain storm three years ago dubbed “The Icepocalypse” that left roads covered in an inch-thick layer of ice slowed him down.
“We chained up and kept on training,” McGee said. “I had a blast with the students.”
When there is fresh snow on the road, McGee has students change lanes and drive through snow berms built up in the middle of the road so they can feel what it feels like to drive in fresh snow, how it can pull a car’s tires off the road and how to control it.
Icy, snow-covered roads aren’t the only winter hazards young drivers must learn to contend with in Alaska. There also is ice fog when temperatures dip to 40 below and moose are a constant threat. McGee recalled asking a young driver a few years ago if he knew how to identify a moose along the road.
“He said, ‘My dad said a moose’s eyes are going to light up the glare of the headlights,’” McGee said. “I told him in 23 years in Alaska, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a moose’s eyes reflect in headlights.”
They drove north of Fairbanks on the Elliott Highway to get some pie and were coming back when McGee noticed a moose on the edge of the road ahead of them.
“I said, ‘Based on your reflective eye theory, have you seen the moose yet?’ and he said, ‘What moose?’ and I said, ‘That one right there on the side of the road,’” McGee said. “It was the perfect driving lesson — a moose’s eyes do not reflect.”