It's the children that brings school bus drivers back

This article submitted by Linda Stelling on 04/22/97.

It is the school children which keep the Paynesville school bus drivers coming back year after year. Some of the drivers have been transporting school children for more than 30 years.

Paynesville Motor and Transfer has 27 school bus drivers. There are 16 bus routes plus the activity routes. At one time there were 18 bus routes, but the buses were smaller. Marlene Theel recalls bus number 19 was new when she started driving in 1973.

Geri Spanier, Paynesville, was the first female driver for the district. She started in 1969. “I needed something to do after my husband died,” she said. “The kids keep me coming back. I enjoy seeing how they change and grow through the school year.”

Geri recalls when she started driving, the buses didn’t have two-way radios and bus drivers were expected to listen to the Albany radio station to get messages. “During one snowstorm, I didn’t get the message as I had my radio turned off. All the other bus drivers turned around and headed back to the bus garage. I was the only one out in the storm,” she said.

Paul Pratt, a 30-year-bus driver, recalls driving one route three times one morning. “I had my radio off and didn’t hear the message about school being closed. I had over half the route picked up when a parent came out and told me school was closed. I turned around and took the kids home again. When I reached town I found some parents had taken their kids to school so I had to take them home,” Pratt said.

The bus garage at that time was located where Wally’s G&T is today. The office operated out of the gas station on the corner where Corner Floral is today. “The doors on the bus garage were so narrow on the old building, we had to pull the mirrors in to get in or out of the doors. One driver even backed into a pole in the alley behind the Community Service Center. Dwight Putzke said they didn’t move to their present location until the winter of 1971-72.

Geri said when she took her bus driving test, she did it behind the wheel of a car. When Marlene started in 1973, she had to take the test in a bus. Geri recalls the early school buses had everything manual...the stop sign, door, lights. In 1973 the buses became more automatic, when the stop arm went out the lights automatically went on. Today, one push of a button activates the arm, door and lights.

Marlene’s first route was the Roscoe route, in three stops the bus was empty. Today she has the route south and east of Highway 4 and 55. She drives about 28 miles morning and evening. In the morning, she picks up 53 students and in the afternoons there are 70 riding the bus home.

Geri’s route takes her west of Lake Henry. She drives 36 miles total and averages 69 students on her bus. “I have a good bunch of kids,” she added. She has had the Lake Henry route 13 years.

“After driving 28 years, you get to know the parents on the bus routes which makes for better communication with the children,” Geri said. Geri enjoys the kids. Sometimes they are more trying than others, but she loves watching them grow and gain confidence from the beginning of the school year to the end. She is also on the second generation of students in some families. “We all need to remember that kids are kids and we can’t expect them to sit quietly all the time,” Geri said.

Each year Geri helps Dwight with a safety presentation during Bus Safety Week in September. They go through the proper exit drills so students know what to do in an emergency. They also do a program for the preschool children so they know what to expect when they start riding the bus on a regular basis.

Marlene and Geri both agreed the kid’s moods and discipline change with the weather and politics. “If parents are dissatisfied with who is in government and if the weather is bad, the kids are bad on the bus,” they said. “Plus, Friday afternoons are usually rowdier as kids are ready for the weekend.”

Geri added children are calmer when the radio is playing. “Music makes a difference. Most of the students like listening to 104, 98.9 or 98.1 FM. In the early years it was KDWB, now the students have switched from rock to country western,” she said.

They both feel the boy’s teams are easier to drive for than the girls to athletic events. “I have driven the baseball team to games 22 years and haven’t had a bit of problem with the boys, they clean up their mess after the ride. The girls are noisier and messier.”

Bus drivers and their years of service are: Dwight Putzke, owner, 35; Paul Pratt, 30; Allen Hubred and Geri Spanier, 28; David Spanier, 26; Marlene and Allen Theel, 24; Dennis Zimmerman, 11; Karen Lieser, 10; Eileen Hertzberg, 9; Audrey Anderson, 8; Steve Deadrick and Cherie Wall, 7; Connie Olmscheid and Laurie Palmer, 6; Pete Hoppe and Debbie Schaumann, 4; Diane Schwandt and Doris Wendlandt, 3; Jim Schmitz and Janet Klein, 2; Judy Cummings, 1; Doug Schwandt, six months; Paul Larsen, Scott Womach, three months; Brian Paglusch and Janelle Hoffman, two months.

Putzke said if you combine all the miles of the Paynesville bus routes, it would be like driving to Chicago (500 miles) in the morning and returning home in the afternoon (another 500 miles). But instead of driving freeways, you would be driving two-lane highways, gravel roads in fog, snow and rain.

Geri Spanier and Marlene Theel stressed the need for parents to send notes with their children when they are to be dropped off somewhere other than home. “We used to have a set place for every student, now the students keep switching their drop-off points from babysitter to babysitter, grandma’s house or a friends. Parents don’t always realize how important notes are. A student may tell us he is to go to grandmas, but where does grandma live? The elementary student can’t always tell us the address,” they emphasized.

The bus drivers stated their buses are always parked in the same place every afternoon, making it easier for students (high school or elementary) to find the right bus.

With her own children all gone from home, Geri finds she misses the kids not being around. “I’ve thought about retiring from the bus routes, but when I see the bus each fall, I get the urge to drive again,” she said. “I enjoy watching the kids at the ball games, being with the kids and sharing their enthusiasm.”

“A bus driver can be friendly with the students but they can’t be friends, otherwise the students try to take advantage of that friendship. Students need to know what the bus driver says, they will carry through with if they misbehave,” Marlene added.

Both ladies stressed the constant need for additional bus drivers. “Some of the drivers have another job and only drive mornings, others are only substitutes,” they said. “The need is always there for more drivers.”

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