“Ain’t that somethin,” Thomas Weller says sheepishly when I mention how people raised over $50,000 for him to get a new set of teeth last fall—most of it in a matter of days. It’s an unusual reversal for him, to be the one receiving help. He’s still getting used to it.
Weller, known as the “San Diego Highwayman,” dedicated over 50 years of his life to helping stranded motorists. It goes back to 1964, when he was 16 and stuck in a snowbank after losing control of his car during an Illinois blizzard. He’d been stranded for hours by the time another driver noticed the skid marks and stopped to pull him out. The man refused any payment once the job was done, and simply told him to pay it forward. “It was a couple years later when I was old enough and smart enough to realize that he very well may have saved my life,” Weller says. “So I started my mission to pass it on.”
Passing it on became just another day’s work for him. In between his shifts as a mechanic, he’d hop in his 1955 Ford Wagon, “Beulah,” and drive up and down San Diego freeways looking for anyone who needed roadside assistance. He rarely got calls or went out with a specific plan. As Weller puts it, “I’d just drive around until my intuition or whatever you want to call it guided me to someone in dire straits.” Whether it was changing a tire or pulling someone out of a burning car (which he’s done a couple of times), he would assist however he could, refuse payment, and encourage the person to pass it on. Then, he’d go home until that itch to help came up again and guided him back into his car and out on the road.
The stories are endless. A quick scroll through Weller’s GoFundMe donations shows the kind of impact he’s left on people. How one chance encounter with a complete stranger stayed with them for the rest of their life. To these many benefactors, their donation was a small token of thanks for what they considered a heroic act. But Weller’s help was never about himself; he simply did what he felt was right.
“I’m no hero,” he says. “I just happened to be at the right place at the right time for people. You just do what is necessary.”
Being our highwayman was just one chapter of Weller’s life. The man has stories to fill seemingly hundreds of books. There’s the time he met his current wife—whom he lovingly refers to as a “good witch”—on a double date and dove in to rescue her after she fell into a creek on Mount Palomar. Or the time he bid adieu to high school by driving his motorcycle down the hallway to the principal’s office and delivering a note saying he was dropping out. His longtime snow-chain sales were even a unique experience, in which he taught customers how to put them on (complete with his own set of quirks and moves inspired by his favorite author, Louis L’Amour) and wouldn’t let them leave until they could demonstrate that they could do it on their own.
But these days, life looks a little different. In February 2017, Weller lost his 17-year-old dog and copilot, Sheela, to old age. Shortly after, he suffered a minor stroke and then, when COVID-19 shut down the county, he was forced to pause and reflect on what would come next.
“My wife said it was the Lord’s way of telling me to slow down,” he says. “I can’t run like I used to and I don’t have the balance that I used to. I can’t in good conscience go out there and play on the freeway anymore.”
It hasn’t been an easy transition. Helping others always helped him just as much. As someone who has struggled with depression most of his life, Weller says that going out and helping others kept those negative thoughts at bay. “I’ve always been a deep person and if I could help one person, it helped me. It was beautiful compensation.”
He’s found some of that same relief in gardening. Last year, he built out a large garden at his ranch filled with vegetables and fruit trees bearing oranges, apples, peaches, and grapefruit. He takes pleasure in methodically tending to something, watching it grow, and ultimately reaping the reward. But here as in his former life, the real reward is always in the doing.
Sure, life may be quieter these days. But San Diego’s highwayman has discovered that there are still plenty of ways to pay it forward, even off the road. Whether that’s tending to his garden and sharing it with his neighbors, or finally accepting help from the hundreds of people he helped during all those years on the road. It sure is somethin.