San Diego Highwayman Helps Stranded Motorists

Hometown Heroes, People
on April 8, 2010
Robert Benson Using a portable tank, Weller fills a spare with air for a driver whose tire blew on Interstate 5.

Thomas Weller, 61, cruises down Interstate 8 near his hometown of El Cajon, Calif. (pop. 94,676), scanning the roadsides for stranded motorists just as hes done for the last 45 years.

"We got one!" exclaims Weller after spotting a pickup truck pulled over in the median of the five-lane highway.

He immediately navigates his Ghostbusters-style rescue-mobile through the fast-flowing traffic and parks in front of the stranded truck.

Wearing his signature outfit—blue jeans and a shirt striped with yellow reflective tape, leg protectors, a red bandanna and lucky hat—Weller keeps one eye on oncoming traffic as he walks back to the pickup and hands driver Carol Sterpe his Good Samaritan calling card.

"Assisting you has been my pleasure," the card reads. "I ask for no payment other than for you to pass on the favor by helping someone in distress that you may encounter."

Sterpe's problem is simple—her truck is out of gas. Weller pulls a gas can from the back of his rescue vehicle and pours in enough fuel to get the high-and-dry motorist, her mother Damaris, and their four dogs to a gas station. The Sterpe's want to pay Weller for his chivalrous deed, but he sweeps the offer aside.

"No-no money," declares Weller, known as the San Diego Highwayman. "Just pass it on."

"I'll definitely do something nice for someone else," vows Sterpe, 25, of Santee, Calif.

When the mood strikes and he has extra cash to fill his tank, Weller dons his gear and checks his supplies, from the air tank to the gas can to a box of color-coded lug nuts. Then he climbs into his one-of-a-kind rescue rig—built from a '56 Crown Victoria and a '55 Ford Country Wagon fitted with emergency lights—and zips onto the San Diego County freeways to seek out the vehicles that most people speed past.

An automobile mechanic by profession, Weller has made more than 6,000 roadside assists during the last four decades, from changing flat tires on cars without jacks to adding coolant to overheated radiators. When he encounters a problem he can't remedy, he whips out his cell phone to dial 911 or let the motorist call for a tow truck.

"I like to think I can do anything, but I know I can't," he says. "I do what I can."

Weller has been driven to help others since a stranger lent him a hand one cold, blustery night in 1964. A teenager at the time, Weller was driving home in a blizzard when he plowed into a snow bank on an isolated Illinois road. "A fellow stopped and pulled me out with a chain," he recalls. "There wasn't any other traffic on that road. I realized he might have saved my life.

"I've been doing it ever since," adds Weller, who generally travels with his dog Sheila in the passenger seat.

Helping out on busy highways does pose hazards and irritations. Once, after pulling over to remove a boat seat impeding the flow of traffic, Weller tripped and ripped his arm open on the edge of the concrete divider.

Another time, after a tailgater forced a driver unexpectedly into the lane ahead of him, Weller drew the tailgaters fury by scolding him on his car's public address system. The tailgater followed Weller and later filed a police report claiming that he had impersonated an officer by trying to pull him over by flashing red lights. A visit from a California Highway Patrol officer cleared Weller of any suspicion, since the lights on his car didn't match the driver's description. "Ninety-five percent of my contact with law enforcement has been positive," he says.

Officers have pulled over Weller to thank him for his good deeds—but his selfless service sometimes skirts the law, which prohibits making non-emergency stops along California freeways.

"In black and white, the letter of the law—I'm way out there as far as being legal," he concedes. "The spirit of the law, though—intending to help and protect people—is what Weller is all about."

A note stuck to his rescue-mobile's dash conveys his good intentions, which he hopes others will pass along: "There is no greater exercise for the heart than reaching down and lifting someone up."