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 Montpelier Magazine

Sense and sensibility: Great Coastal CEOs Ed Estes and Martha Grover ('83). Estes' $2.5 million gift is the largest in JMU history in honor of his late wife (inset) Dorothy Thomasson Estes ('45). The gift will help build the future Dorothy Thomasson Estes Center for Theatre and Dance, a vital component of what President Linwood H. Rose says will be "a splendid home for the arts at JMU" on the corner of South Main and Grace streets.

Over the long haul

Trucking magnate Ed Estes raises the curtain on the arts at JMU with a $2.5 million gift in honor of his late wife, Dorothy Thomasson Estes ('45)

CHARLES EDWIN "ED" ESTES didn't earn the nickname "Hard Rock" because of his tough reputation as an athlete, his hard-nosed business dealings or early signs of entrepreneurship. It was because he fell dead asleep on the second floor of a movie theater while waiting for a friend and tumbled out of the balcony. He landed on his head on the floor below. "I kept leaning farther and farther over until I fell down. I hollered when I was falling down," Estes recalls with a laugh. "The fellow who ran the soda shop downstairs nicknamed me 'Hard Rock.'"

The World War II Air Corps flight in-structor and Fork Union Military Academy scholarship athlete would earn that moniker many times over in the years ahead. Estes started his freight-hauling business, C.E. Estes Contract Carrier, in Richmond's Shockoe Bottom in 1946. The son of Richmond trucking magnate W.W. Estes, Ed Estes left his father's business when he was refused a $10-a-month raise.

"My father said I wasn't worth it, so I went outside to get a Coke and cool down," Estes says. "I saw a truck going by, flagged him down and bought it. I had my own trucking business with one truck and no drivers." (The man who sold him that first truck recently attended Estes' 80th birthday party.)

Estes made his company work by making sure his trucks never traveled empty. His first job was to deliver a load of transformers to Norfolk. He told his truck driver to head back from Norfolk on Route 460 and to pull into the first service station he came to. "Wait for me there, and when I find a load of freight, I'll meet you and let you know where to pick it up," Estes says he told the driver. "That's how I made my first delivery, my second and so on."

Later, his father wanted him to come back and help run his business, Estes Express. "I told him I was making too much money to work for a salary."

The retired president and CEO of Great Coastal Express parlayed that bold start  into one of the leading trucking businesses on the East Coast. He acquired Great Coastal in 1957. The business moved to Midlothian Turnpike and then to the company's current 100-acre complex on Route 10 in Chester.

Estes started his company a year after marrying Dorothy Thomasson Estes ('45), the high school sweetheart he made his life with for almost half a century until her death in 1996. As a tribute to her memory, he recently gave $2.5 million to JMU to help build the university's future Dorothy Thomasson Estes Center for Theatre and Dance.

The largest donation in JMU's history, the gift will be part of $5 million in private gifts to be raised for the Estes Center, which will be located on the corner of Main and Grace streets.

"We will create a splendid home for the arts at JMU," President Linwood H. Rose said when he announced the gift on James Madison Day. Its centerpiece will be a 450-seat main-stage theater that will accommodate stage plays, dance and full-scale musical theater productions. The 108,490-square-foot center will house classrooms, laboratories, faculty offices, dance studios, instructional theaters and support spaces.

"While our students, faculty and staff have had many remarkable achievements over the years, this new facility will make possible a whole new world of collaborative artistic endeavors," says William Buck, director of the School of Theatre and Dance. "This ex-traordinarily generous gift will create a welcoming environment for audiences to see the work of our exceptionally talented students."

Estes' gift follows one his grandchildren made last year to name the bluestone fireplace in the Leeolou Alumni Center for Mrs. Estes, and another from Ed Estes for the endowed Estes Scholarship. Their daughter, Martha Estes Grover ('83), contributed the fountain in Newman Lake in Mrs. Estes' memory. Together the gifts establish JMU as a place of family pride for her memory.

"There are three reasons for me to give to JMU," Estes says. "My daughter, son-in-law and wife went there."

While Estes and Dorothy Thomasson dated from the time they were in seventh grade at Chase City High School, their adult lives together got under way at Madison College. There, Estes remembers, he had to sign her out for dates. "You couldn't take a date downtown to the movies unless there were three or four couples back then," Estes recalls. "I fell in love with her and wouldn't leave her alone until she agreed to marry me," he says. That was 1947, two years after she gradu-ated. The couple was married for 49 years.

Dorothy Estes, who spent her Madison days as an education major and a member of the May Court, was an active alumna who stayed in touch with her college roommate and attended her 50th college reunion just before her death in 1996.

Martha Estes Grover, is the embodiment of meaningful inheritances from both her parents. She followed her mother to JMU, where she majored in finance and accounting, and later returned to serve on JMU's Board of Visitors. After graduation, Grover also exhibited her father's streak of indepen-dence by going to work for Johnston, Lemon & Co., a Washington, D.C., investment and brokerage firm, where she worked for three years before joining the family business as a terminal manager.

She worked her way up through the ranks and became CEO of Great Coastal Express by the time she was 30. Her husband, John Gordon "Chubby" Grover ('81) was vice president of development. Estes, who was ready for semiretirement by that time, turned over the reins and majority ownership to his daughter. Under her management, Great Coastal's annual revenue grew from $35 million to more than $77 million. In 1999, Working Woman magazine recognized the company as one of the nation's top 500 woman-owned businesses. After years of working 60- to 70-hour weeks, however, Grover attributes a profound

shift in life priorities to her mother, who

died just before the birth of her third

child, Jack.

"When I had him, I knew he would be my last, so I made a conscious decision to start pulling back from the business," Grover says. "We had a live-in nanny, but my mom had been bailing me out all the time. She hated my crazy, hectic life and wanted me to stay home with the children. My mother's death made me slow down and re-evaluate."

When the market was right, Grover blended her business prowess with her new priorities and sold the family business to Heartland Express, the country's most profitable truckload carrier.

"I don't feel I need to be anywhere else other than where I am right now, which is raising my children," Grover says.

Although Estes had been gone from the day-to-day management of Great Coastal for more than a decade, he was still chairman emeritus when his daughter sold the company last June. "Even after my retirement, I went in every day for a few hours," Estes says. "I miss it, but I expected to. I think it was a good decision [to sell the company]."

There are spin-offs of Great Coastal that remain with the Estes family. "Chubby" and John Crowley ('80), formerly Great Coastal's chief operating officer, manage their land development and freight logistics business, aptly named Hard Rock.

Estes remains in the thick of things. When there is land to clear for a development, Estes likes to be the one to move the dirt. "We've been backhoeing together for 14 years," Chubby says of his father-in-law. "Most of the earthwork we have that needs to be done, he does."

For Estes, who married Susan Eister in 1999, working heavy equipment is a hobby. "I go down on weekends or whenever I have time to do it," Estes says. "I just finished one project, so I need something new to do. I'd rather do that than nothing."

In fact, the former Fork Union baseball and football star remains physically active. "I was an athlete," Estes says. "I loved sports. Still do."

Estes, a 40-year member of the Richmond Ski Club and gold medal winner,  only quit competitive racing  two years ago after a skiing accident. "I was slow getting my skis back together and broke four ribs, a collar bone and punctured a lung," says Estes, who still skis regularly, including twice this year at Vail. 

Boldness has been the key to Ed Estes' success. And he has been just as bold with his generosity. His gift to JMU is the university's largest ever and will help create the future Dorothy Thomasson Estes Center for Theatre and Dance, a prominent and tasteful tribute both to the arts and to a devoted wife, mother and JMU alumna.

"Dad kept it all exciting with his various projects. He was always whipping up projects," Grover says. "Mom was kind of his leveler. She held the family together. She was the glue, the nurturer. She kept things together and stayed in the background somewhat.  That's why I'm so thrilled that she's being recognized. She would be embarrassed by the attention, but she would have tears in her eyes that Dad recognized her in such a way at JMU."

Story by Sande Snead Fulk ('83), Photo by Wayne Scarberry