Remembering the Adventures of “Old School” Bus Drivers

Recently, classmates and I were talking about our memories, and the conversation drifted to the rarely recognized people we saw five days a week: the district bus drivers.

After more than 40 years, the names of my bus drivers still come to mind: Mrs. Mason, Mr. Clark, Mrs. Wilson, Mr. Russell, Mrs. Thornton, Mrs. Jodoin, Mrs. Sanford, Mr. Briggs, Mrs. Diyard. I have fond memories of all of them, and in retrospect they had Job’s patience almost every day, shuttling up to 70 children to school, Monday through Friday, nine months a year.

Five of “my” drivers, Ray Clark, Morris Russell, Dean Briggs, Beulah Dilyard and Adaline Wilson, are now gone. They cherished good children, verbally fought thugs, cleaned up vomit with mint-infused sawdust, dried tears, and listened to stories of excited children or those who otherwise felt unheard.

It was also at a time when things that are no longer acceptable today were considered “normal.”

I remember one time our bus slid into a snowy, muddy ditch on the Skinner Highway and the younger kids were told to get to the “high side” of the bus, while the older kids got out and shook the bus free. A troublemaker was addressed with a single crack on his back, or told to ‘stop being a (expletive)’ as the rest of the children applauded the driver’s remark. A handy “brake check” would attract the attention of a growing number of out-of-control kids. Sometimes the driver would stop on a country road so that a student facing a bathroom emergency could relieve himself.

In the 1970s and early 1980s, Addison buses did not have a communication system. If the bus broke down, a student was sent to the nearest house to call the school and request a rescue bus, with the maintenance phone number on a piece of paper.

The “cool” kids sat in the back of the bus, as did the troublemakers. “Average” students were generally in the middle zone, and shy and quiet children preferred the front seats away from everyone else. A place in the first three rows was usually reserved for the inevitable scum who were separated from the rest to bring peace to the race.

When the hardened students got out of control and the warnings went unheeded, we went to the “bus barn,” today’s transportation facility. When the kids found out the driver wasn’t bluffing, they pleaded for clemency, another chance. However, once the decision was made and the wheel turned, we headed for a visit from the Director of Transport, Cecil Newton.

Mr. Newton was a tall man with a military crew cut, a teddy bear to those who knew him, but he had no time for student shenanigans either. The driver would park in the garage parking lot and honk. Mr. Newton came out in his green work uniform. He climbed aboard, got a brief summary from the frustrated driver about why we were there, and without a word he cast a steely glance down the aisle, back and forth. That’s all it took. The children lowered their heads behind the seats without a word, wondering what “fate” was in store for them. He said a few things to the driver, disembarked and we resumed the way back. If the driver had it for the day, Mr. Newton would take charge of the route. He knew every road and every stop. He waved a thunderous “goodbye” to each student as they jumped up and ran home. Mr. Newton ran a tight ship and he commanded respect. For drivers and staff, he was a “big boss”.

Despite these difficult times, the drivers still believed and took care of the students.

Mr. Clark regularly handed out token gifts at Christmas. A driver laughed as he drove over a known bump in the road, and children sitting in the rear wheel arches threw themselves inches from the seat. It became a kind of game, with some taking bets having fun to see who would fly higher than the others.

We’ve seen “our” buses evolve from front-lever shifters with a heater that would fry or freeze you to long transit-style automatic transmission units with a stereo system, a communication system and seats that could really fit. Three.

To the drivers I had who remember me, thank you for putting up with us and getting us safely to our destinations. I wish you a happy retirement.

Dan Cherry is a Lenawee County historian.

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