To many, she is known as ‘Mumma Mary’, the queen of the road, or even the truck driving instructor in the tennis skirt.
Whatever she’s called, Queanbeyan’s Mary Kovacevic is most comfortable behind the wheel of a semi-trailer, preferably with an Eaton Fuller Roadranger 18-and-a-half speed transmission.
At 58, Mary has shifted through the gears of life, but to have a conversation with her is like being in the fast lane.
“I’m Croatian. I love to talk,” she tells Region Media. “I could write a book with some of the stories I have, but I won’t write it. I love to talk too much.”
On Andrew Denton’s TV show Enough Rope about driving instructors in 2005, she had the audience in hysterics with a barrage of jokes, “but I had to keep them clean”, Mary says.
She even stood for election on the Queanbeyan-Palerang Regional Council in 2017 because she was “sick of people making promises and not seeing them through”. She didn’t get elected.
Mary has had to negotiate the negative attitudes of men in a male-dominated industry but has always insisted on keeping her femininity (and tennis skirts). Her survival provided the inspiration and the name for her truck-driving school, Drive to Survive.
“I’ve had no choice except to survive,” she says. “I’ve had smart-arse guys make stupid comments to me, but it just shows their inadequacies. If I’m going to cry about it, I’ll do my tears at home, and I’ll turn up the next day.
“I’m really good at my job and that’s why I’ve survived. I’ve had to be good because if I ever stuffed up, the guys were waiting for me to stuff up.”
Mary turned her back on modelling with renowned Canberran Lyn Mills when she was a teenager and life behind the wheel beckoned.
The eldest of five daughters to Croatian-born parents Frank and Eva, Mary said her father never wanted his daughter to be a truck driver. But as soon as she was old enough to ride in the passenger seat with her father’s tipping trucks, the seed was sown.
“Dad was my hero. He was a welder and mechanic who came to Australia in 1960 and saw an opportunity to buy some old trucks and start a business. He eventually decided to teach me how to drive trucks,” Mary says.
They won a contract supplying materials when Parliament House was being built and also delivered the foundations for the suburbs of Gilmore, Chisholm, Banks and the Tuggeranong Dam in the late 1980s.
Mary fell pregnant and her first son Dylan was born in 1988. Joshua, who now works with his mum, was born 17 months later.
“I used to breastfeed them while driving the trucks,” Mary recalls. “The comments over the radio were pretty funny until I started flinging dirty nappies out the window while waiting in a line of trucks doing deliveries.”
Queanbeyan-born and bred, Mary drove for two years with Readymix. The company gave her further training to become a truck-driving instructor, but it was never by the book because there is always something different about Mary.
“Getting behind the wheel of a big truck can be confronting, but it’s really simple too. I’ve had people tell me they didn’t know how to start a truck and three days later they’re getting their licence.
“I’ve got this teaching method I call the ‘leg-up, low-box action’ from the passenger seat [it involves Mary putting her right leg on the clutch from the passenger’s seat with the driver so they get a feel for the gearbox]. I’ve also got scoliosis in my hip from it, too,” she says.
Whether it’s a light, medium or heavy rigid licence, Mary says there is nothing like being in the cab of a Kenworth semi-trailer – her pride and joy – though her first love was an Atkinson lorry.
She has taught all the wardens at Goulburn Jail and all the drivers at Evo Energy and Icon Water. Mary would also love to see more women behind the wheel. “It’s just so satisfying,” she says. “It’s like teaching a baby how to walk.”