The thought of a 16-year-old driving a school bus would concern most parents today, but in the not-so-distance past, it was the norm. There’s a group of bus drivers driving for Lincoln Charter School who have regressed to those good old days. They all drove the school bus when they were in high school and in retirement, have returned to the driver’s seat.
Johnny Huss, a 1965 Lincolnton High School graduate, drove throughout 1964 and for a few months in 1965 before he went to work at Harris Teeter bagging grocery. He returned to bus driving in 2009.
“They say you go back to your childhood as you get older,” he said. “It was a little bit crazy when we were driving because you were friends with everyone on the bus and you were watching in the mirror as much as you was the road, maybe more.”
In the 1960s and 1970s when this group was going to school and driving bus, there wasn’t nearly as much traffic as there is now. The busses had governors on them that kept the speed capped at 35 miles per hour. Inventive students got around the regulators and some would stage school bus races. There wasn’t a bus log, and no one kept up with mileage.
“I’m coming back to Iron Station and there’s a big, long hill that goes past Timken,” Huss remembered. “You just mash it to the floor and hold it there on a straight road. At the bottom of the hill, there was a law man sitting there. He clocked me at 57 in a 35. That wasn’t good.”
In 1970, Cindy Coberly attended school in Charlotte and started driving a school bus when forced busing was in place. Her bus route was an hour and a half long. At that time, the students that drove bus were able to take their buses home with them.
“In a way, driving a bus kept me in school because I looked at it as my own transportation,” she said.
At first, Coberly just drove her bus and boycotted school because she didn’t want to go to an all-black school. They finally caught up with her and told her that she had to go to school or they were going to take the bus away from her. Her boycott ended up making national news. She drove a school bus for a few years after graduating, then drove a tractor trailer truck for more than 20 years. She returned to driving bus at Lincoln Charter last year.
In 1970, when she turned 16, Marilyn Loftin started driving a school bus. She’d pick up all ages of students and take the elementary school students to Rock Springs and the high school students to East Lincoln.
“The buses that went to East Lincoln lined up at the old Rock Springs school on a hill,” she said. “The five of us were lined up one afternoon and the bus in front of me kept rolling back into me. The principal came over and asked me to stop bumping her in the back. That wasn’t quite how it was, but we straightened it out.”
Back then, the buses were all manual transmission. Gaynell Beacham had never driven a manual transmission before but as soon as she turned 16, she went to get her bus driver’s license. Mr. Thompson, the instructor talked her through how to shift and she passed her test, seemingly she thought, because she was a girl.
“Mr. Thompson gave the boys a hard time, but he liked the girls,” she said.
Loftin went to college, taught for several years, then was a stay at home mom for her two children.
“When my son was in first grade, they went through four bus drivers,” she said. “They’d miss our house and that upset him. He asked if I’d please drive his bus, so I did. That was in 1986. I drove about 10 years, then I became a teacher’s assistant, then worked in the office before retiring three years ago. I came back here (Lincoln Charter) because they needed bus drivers.”
When Beacham was driving, so was her sister so their family had two buses parked in the yard.
“I was essentially paid to go to school,” she said. “I made something like $1.35 an hour.”
The pay is a little more than $1.35 an hour these days. The hiring process and testing, which includes medical testing, is much more stringent, but Beacham said that Lincoln Charter is always looking for bus drivers, so she does a good bit of recruiting. The Lincoln Charter buses go to central locations rather than door to door which makes it a little easier than regular buses with all the stops. Drivers typically work four hours per day and start out at $14.
“If you love people and children, it’s a good job,” she said. “It’s just like riding a bicycle, you never forget. It comes back naturally.”