Thursday was not the day to call for a tow truck in the Inland Northwest.
Drivers from across Washington and North Idaho gathered in Spokane to honor an icon in their industry, ending Elizabeth A. “Betsy” Merrill’s memorial service with a funeral procession of nearly 70 tow trucks.
Merrill, who owned Rouse’s Towing and Recovery with her husband, Robin, died last week, five days shy of her 61st birthday.
She was the first female tow truck driver in Spokane and was known statewide for her dedication and knowledge of the business.
“When she started, it was because guys told her she couldn’t do it,” said Robin Merrill. “She had that spunk to her.”
More than 250 people, many wearing coats and hats from tow companies across the region, packed the Riplinger Funeral Home for a service. Then 67 tow trucks drove to Rouse’s tow yard on Boone Avenue for a reception.
It was the first time Rouse’s had closed its 24-hour daily operation.
The Merrills bought the tow business in 2003, 26 years after Betsy Merrill was hired as a tow truck driver.
Her love of the business never seemed out of place for her family.
Her daughters, Melody Goode and Gwen Druckrey, said her jobs as a driver seemed fitting for their strong-willed mother, who’d already worked as a sheriff’s deputy in Pend Oreille County.
“We lost one of the great women in the industry, and there’s so few to start with,” Goode said. “It’s still a good ol’ boys club.”
Born in Chicago, Betsy Merrill moved to Hawaii as a toddler, dropped out of school after the eighth grade, then moved to Washington with her daughters in 1974 to run a grocery store in Dalkena.
Merrill’s ex-husband, Ray Bourquin, was a driver for Rouse’s when the two married, and Betsy used to ride with him on tows.
“She just fell in love with it,” Bourquin said.
The couple left Rouse’s in the early 1980s to own a long-haul truck, but Merrill returned in 1986, then hired her ex-husband as a driver about a decade later.
Merrill’s love of people and desire to help them made her a great fit for the job, friends said. She didn’t hesitate to help stranded motorists find hotels or rent cars, friends said.
And though she entered the business not knowing anything about towing, friends said she left it as an expert.
“She was more than happy to help people understand the business better,” said Cej Florence, a Rouse’s dispatcher. “If most companies had questions, they’d call her.”
It wasn’t just colleagues and customers she helped.
Her employees were her family, and company gatherings her family reunions.
“For people like her, it’s more than a business,” said Chuck Brewster, general manager of Jim’s Northside Towing in Seattle. “The younger towers, they don’t have that dedication.”
She took her job seriously and operated her tow yard that way, too.
“I think Rouse’s is really the epitome of the opposite of how tow truck drivers are portrayed,” said Sean Comfort, 22, one of Merrill’s 11 grandchildren. “It’s that way because Grandma wanted it that way.”