For more than a decade, four Elon University professors have been riding to and from work together in an effort to make their 40-plus minute drive more interesting. Only 18.3 percent of Americans, on average, carpool to work daily, according to Associated Content, citing 2005 statistics. But Elon professors Paul Miller, Jeffrey Pugh, Steve DeLoach and Tom Tiemann have met for years in Carrboro or Chapel Hill to make the trek to work every day.
History of the car pool
“I’ve been carpooling with somebody since I came to Elon, which was 27 or 28 years ago,” said Tiemann, an economics professor. “It’s been a long time.”
Next to join was fellow economics professor DeLoach, who said he appreciated the offer from a senior faculty member for a mentoring opportunity.
“We’re in the same department, so it made sense,” DeLoach said. “From my point of view, I didn’t think that much about, ‘Hey this will save me money.’ It was more, ‘Here’s the senior guy in my department, I’m a new hire, here’s a chance to network with someone who’s going to have an influence in my career.’ It’s social capital, loosely defined.”
Tiemann and DeLoach estimate they carpooled together for roughly a year before Pugh joined them. Pugh, a religious studies professor, had recently moved to the Chapel Hill area.
The final member, Miller, joined two weeks into his second year as an Elon professor. He was looking for a ride into Elon when he looked up DeLoach’s contact information. DeLoach said there was a longstanding carpool, and asked Miller.
“I’m the latest comer into the carpool, I’m the rookie,” Miller said. “But by only a few weeks.”
The car pool of four, as it stands, has been relatively unchanged for 13 years.
“One of the things that makes it work is we don’t get too hung up on everyone being in the car pool every day,” Tiemann said. He also said economics professor Mark Kurt occasionally fills in for a member when someone can’t make it.
Each professor trades off driving nearly every day so no one has to do the bulk of the driving. But, scheduling sometimes rearranges the dynamic.
“The best is when we trade off every day, but it doesn’t always work out that way, so you have to be flexible,” Pugh said.
“But, that’s pretty uncommon,” he said. “Most of the time it works out really well. At the end of the year, it’s more common, though.”
Both economics professors, Tiemann and DeLoach spoke about the career and social advancement aspects of the car pool.
“There’s a lot of what economists call social capital,” Tiemann said. “We’re not only good friends, but we’re better at our jobs because we do this. We learn about other parts of the university and what other people are doing.”
Pugh said he will discuss book ideas with the car pool and a few of the professors have collaborated on research. But ultimately, they say they are foremost friends that make the sometimes two-hour round-trip ride go faster.
“Sometimes, when I’m in the car pool, it’s the best two hours of my day,” Miller said, laughing.
Pugh is known in the carpool for saying, “It saves me $100 a week in therapy.”
Miller has spoken a few times at Elon’s Turning 21 dinners and to other professors and students about the importance of the social aspect of carpooling.
“I would hate the thought of not having that interaction every day,” Miller said. “You see a movie and you want to tell your friends and have a laugh about it. Or a discussion about a serious topic, especially people that you value, and you value their opinions and you respect them. It’s a really powerful relationship. It would really negatively impact my life if I didn’t have the carpool.”
“Aw, I’m getting verklempt,” Pugh said.
“Sometimes life can be isolating. You go home, you go to work, you go home – that’s it. The car pool is for us a way to not be isolated from human community,” he continued.
Miller agreed, as well.
“The best times are, well, it’s been a long time now, but when DeLoach and Miller got tenure,” Tiemann said. “But that was a good thing, we’re all really happy for them. I knew they were going to get it because I was on the promotion and tenure committee, so I couldn’t say anything. It was like: ‘Finally.'”
The environmental aspect
Three of the four professors drive Prii, which stretches their carpooling dollar even further.
“I think you feel good that you’re making a positive impact,” said Miller, who has two Prii, “But that’s not the driving force behind it.”
Tiemann, though he is the professor without a Prius, said he appreciates the weight off of his wallet.
“We’re glad we’re saving gas for sure, both for our own pockets and the environment,” he said.
DeLoach said partially thanks to the car pool he and his wife were able to live with one car for 12 years before buying another. He bought his Prius in 2005.
“If you think about carpooling, regardless of what you drive, when you’ve got four guys in a car pool and you drive every fourth day, it quadruples your gas mileage in real terms,” he said. “Instead of getting 45 miles to the gallon, you get four times that. I fill up once, maybe every two or three weeks.”
Friends outside of moving vehicles
Miller, Pugh, DeLoach and Tiemann have all become good friends outside of work and travel thanks to the car pool.
“In the summer or over vacations, once a week we’ll go get a beer or something,” Tiemann said. “We’ll have lunch in Mill Town in Chapel Hill or sit on the Weaver Street lawn.”
The weekly hours of “Seinfeld-esque” banter that DeLoach speaks of has translated into valued friendships for the professors.
“When you make those connections it redefines your definition of family,” Miller said. “Sometimes we throw around too loosely and other times I don’t think we care about it enough. It’s not necessarily an accident of genetics that brings us together and adds a deep, meaningful value to those relationships.”