Finding her horsepower

Kristy Eckert

Barbara Trueman took one of her beloved horses to a doctor visit at the Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine, and was shocked at what she saw. The medical personnel, she realized, were relegated to lifting the animal-which weighed perhaps 1,000 pounds-without a hoist.

"There were a lot of things missing," she said. "There was a lot more that could be done there."

She decided she'd be the person to do it.

The private philanthropist won't say how much time or money she has given to Columbus to educate children. To support the arts. To heal the sick. And to help her signature cause-her alma mater's veterinary college.

But the time? It's been hours, weeks, months, years.

And the money? It's undoubtedly more than most will make in a lifetime.

Few would know, though.She gives it quietly, others say-humbly.

Because Barbara is not about flash or pretense. Her story is one about love-love of animals, love of family and love of that ornery fraternity boy she simply had to meet.

He was dating her sorority sister at Ohio State, but boy, was he handsome.

"Tell me about this Jim Trueman," Barbara Colucci said to Trueman's friend.

"He's trouble," the friend replied. "You don't want to know about him."

"Yes," Barbara said. "I do."

Their dates, she now admits with a chuckle, weren't great. But she couldn't stop thinking about him afterward.

By the time she was 21, they were married. Two years later, baby Michelle arrived.

While Barbara raised their eventual crew of three children in Upper Arlington, Jim invested in real estate and ran his German Village bar and restaurant, Diebel's (now the chic eatery Barcelona).

On weekends, he indulged his sense of adventure by racing amateur cars. The couple drove all over the Midwest-sometimes with the kids, sometimes alone. Unable to afford fancy resorts or nice hotels, they often pitched a tent and camped. "There's got to be a better way," Jim would say, "a better place for people to travel." They talked often about what would make families happy, about what would work for folks like them.

Jim founded Red Roof Inn in 1972, and opened his first motel in Grove City the next year. He asked for his wife's thoughts on color combinations and looks people like. He advertised the business on his race car: "Sleep cheap." And he grew his idea until it became the country's largest privately owned budget motel chain, with more than 150 in 30 states.

"That was his baby," Barbara said. "And I had my babies at home."

Jim's financial success gave him the pleasure of fulfilling one of his wife's lifelong fantasies: he bought her a horse.

Tex came from Virginia, and Barbara, along with Michelle-then in junior high-learned how to jump him. They stabled him at first and eventually built a home on 26 acres in Dublin, where Tex got his own barn and they had the pleasure of riding him at their leisure.

"He was well taken care of," Barbara said. "And well loved."

As their daughters showed competitive riding potential, the Truemans bought two more horses. But Barbara was not "your typical horse show mother," said Michelle Gajoch, the oldest of the Trueman kids. "Win at all costs was not my mother's approach. The animals came first."

Meanwhile, Jim fostered his own hobby, purchasing the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course and founding the Truesports racing team. It would star a young man Jim had met on the amateur circuit-Bobby Rahal.

"The two of them had a dream," Barbara said. "Jim wanted an Indy car team. Bobby wanted to race a fast car."

Jim took a gamble on a kid he clearly thought had something, and Barbara relished her family's happiness.

"We had horsepower of one kind," Barbara said. "And the real thing on the other side."

Jim was vibrant and fit at 50, exercising daily and pouring himself into his work. When he began coming home, plunking down and occasionally falling asleep before dinner, Barbara simply assumed he was exhausted.

But one day, he blindsided her with an announcement: he was having surgery.

The exploratory results were grim. Jim had colon cancer. It had spread. Chemotherapy, doctors explained, would do no good.

"It was a huge shock," Barbara said. "As you might imagine."

Determined to beat his disease, Jim requested chemo anyway, but it didn't help.

For more than a year, he battled. His liver failed. His kidneys failed. He never hinted he was nearing the end.

When Jim took his racing team to the Indianapolis 500 in 1986, Barbara headed to Cincinnati with Megan, their youngest daughter, for a horse competition.

As the show ended, Megan's trainer called Barbara over to a small TV set, where cars zoomed across the screen.

"Come here-quick!" he said. "They're winning!"

Bobby Rahal won racing's most prestigious contest on its most storied stage. He stood on the track, sipped the traditional victory milk and then handed it to Jim to share.

Tears well in Barbara's eyes as she recalls the memory and her voice trembles.

"It still makes me cry," she said. "He was a man who came from nothing and created a wonderful life."

Five days later, Columbus celebrated with a parade.

Six days after that, Jim died.

At 72, Barbara enjoys globetrotting, from taking garden tours in France and Ireland to safaris in Africa. "But I must admit," she said, sitting in her rustic, warm home among photos of her five grandchildren, "I always love coming back here."

Outside, she cares for seven horses in her barn and estimates she's had about 20 over the years. (Tex, her first, lived to be an astonishing 35.) And she delights in Robby and Teddy, her energetic Norfolk Terriers.

Though Jim left her Red Roof Inns, she couldn't see herself running it-or hovering over whoever did. So she worked with his most trusted advisers, positioned the company to sell and-difficult as she says it was-let it go. She ran the Truesports team for a while, but eventually dissolved it. She kept the race track until last year, when Michelle-who long ran it-decided to bow out to focus on her own family.

Instead of immersing herself in business, then, Barbara has immersed herself in the business of giving back.

"She's just very passionate about the things she's chosen to get involved with," Michelle said. "Her world … changed dramatically (when my father died). I think one of the great things about it is she did get herself involved in many, many causes."

Barbara has advocated for public education, financed community theater and served her alma mater in myriad ways. She has devoted time to many boards, including those at Nationwide Children's Hospital, Ohio State University Foundation, KIPP Journey Academy and

But the cause about which she is most passionate is clear: the Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine. She visits about once a month to take one horse or another for care. But she also tags along on tours for potential donors, staff say, asking smart questions that may prompt emotion-tugging (and wallet-opening) answers. She has recruited many a friend (and stranger) to visit.

"If you didn't know any better, you'd probably think she worked with us," joked Karen Longbrake, senior director of development for the veterinary college, who has known Barbara for 17 years.

The topic almost visibly perks Barbara, and she discusses it with the gusto of a campaigner-the research on dog cancer they're doing, their need for building upgrades, the selflessness with which they work.

"There's a lot of work that goes on that can and will benefit humans eventually," she said. "I guess maybe," she added, laughing, "I'm a veterinary wannabe in many ways."

Perhaps her greatest gift was creating the veterinary college's first endowed chair in 2000, which essentially allowed the school to recruit the best and brightest. But more than that, school leaders say, it caught people's attention, sparking others to give, too.

"She just started something big," Longbrake said. "She has really grown into a true philanthropist-not just by how she gives, but by how she inspires others."

Still, ask Barbara about what she is most proud of in life, and she'll tell you her children. "I think they've grown up to be good people," she said. "And I think that's all you can ask."

And as for the man who helped make them? He remains her love.

She's dated a bit, she said, but will never remarry.

"I guess when you find your hero, it's hard to replace him," she said. "And I have a lot of good memories."