MSD bus driver to retire after 47 years of service

By Phil Smith

When retiring school bus driver Judy Decker first sat in the driver’s seat, she had no idea she would finally hang up her keys the same year that high school seniors on that bus would also be eligible for retirement.

An 18-year-old 12th-grader on that bus in September, 1974, is now 65, eligible for Social Security and possibly thinking of wintering in Florida.

After all, taking the Fort Myers Beach transit system to the senior center for a shuffleboard tournament would certainly be less harrowing then riding on Decker’s bus back then, during an era when school attendance took precedence over snow drifts and blinding fog

“We drove on a lot of snowy roads,” said Decker, 81, who has delivered students to Southwood Jr/Sr High School and Southwood Elementary School her entire 47-year career. “There was one year when a big snow came up really fast and the kids stayed at school all night. We’ve driven on a lot of roads with ice because weather forecasting wasn’t like it is now. We would get stuck many times. I’ve driven when snow’s been up to the fenders and at that time too, a lot of times, the farmers with their tractors would pull us out.”

Decker has been dropping kids off at school and delivering them home safely for so long, she estimates she’s gone through at least a half dozen buses — four of them which boasted that new bus smell.

In addition to delivering students to the Southwood schools, she said she’s been a driver for Heartland Career Center for 31 years.

Decker said that today, school systems err on the side of safety in canceling or delaying school rather than requiring drivers to battle unsafe roads. She said this more modern protocol is aided by advancements in weather forecasting. Another big change is the process of vetting drivers.

“I just went out to the garage and picked up a bus and drove it home,” said Decker about her first foray into bus driving. She said an instructor later went on a ride along. “She came and rode with me around a country block and said ‘you’ll be fine.’”

Decker’s decision to become a school bus driver began out of necessity.

“Her son with special needs had to change buses three times to get to school,” said a press release from Metropolitan School District of Wabash County that announced Decker’s upcoming retirement. “With all those transitions, Judy would often need to pick him up and help with the transporting.”

Decker’s daughter, Kim Gangstad, also remembers some unreliability involving the family’s regular driver.

“Our bus driver kept being late and mom had to take us to school,” said Gangstad. “When she complained to the superintendent, he said ‘look lady, we don’t have enough volunteers.’ She said ‘hey, if I can drive a tractor, I can drive a bus.’”

Decker also remembers that conversation with the school’s head administrator. “He said ‘we’re not babysitters,” she said. “I went in before the school year of ’74 and I said ‘I want that job. If I have to take my kids to school every day, I might as well get paid for it.’”

School bus driving as a vocation is not without its challenges — for both the drivers and for school systems who need to fill open slots. Increased strenuousness in vetting, facilitated by tragic events such as the triple fatality near Rochester in 2018, has made becoming a driver more difficult than ever. In addition, school systems everywhere face a dramatic shortage of applicants.

“They can’t find bus drivers and they can’t find sub drivers,” Decker said. “It makes it so hard and it’s going to get even more difficult for someone to get their license,” she added, citing a more stringent licensing process coming up next year.

Decker said that one common hurdle often faced by school bus drivers — unruly kids — has been for her, not so much.
Her daughter concurred.

“She’s never had much trouble,” said Gangstad. “She enjoys the kids and they love her. I think she had one fight between a couple of teenagers and they ended up apologizing to her.”

Decker said being a parent and having the advantage of years of life experience gives her the upper hand when conflict does arrive. Recently, a stubborn student chose to engage in debate on the location of his assigned seat, something that has become a thing in the wake of Covid-19 protocols.

“He got on my bus one day and I told him he was in the wrong seat and he said ‘no I’m not,’” remembered Decker, who decided that patience would be her virtue in this battle of wits. “I just sat there and waited,” she said. “Finally, he got up and moved to the back, although he still swore he’d always sat there (in the original spot).”

Sometime later, the student got a driver’s license and stopped riding the bus. Still, Decker had made a positive impact on the determined student. “I just got a text from him,” she said. “It had taken him a little while to warm up, but he said ‘You’ve taken me to school ever since I started kindergarten and thankfully you took me into my senior year until I could drive. I hope I don’t have to work the night of your party, but if I do I’ll try to get off.’”

The student was referring to a retirement open house for Decker, scheduled for Dec. 15 from 4:30 to 6 p.m. in the Southwood Jr/Sr High School cafeteria. The public is invited.

Decker said driving a school bus for nearly a half century has given her a perspective on life that has more depth than a snow drift from the winter of 1978.

Her own high school, Somerset High School, has long been submerged under the Mississinewa Reservoir. But driving a bus has sparked memories of her own childhood as she slowly watched countless students make the entire journey from youth to adult, then parent, and finally grandparent.

“I’ve had a few generations here,” Decker said.

“When I would go on my bus route, I would pass places like where I had my first all day babysitting job, or where I lived when I went to school and rode the bus, or where I learned to tie my shoes when I was with my mother at five years old,” she said.

“I passed all these things and it was kind of like a trip down memory lane.”

And … yes, one of Decker’s former passengers is old enough to have had an AARP Magazine subscription for 15 years and is now eligible to start playing the “I’m on a fixed income” card as a recipient of Social Security.

“It was a relative of ours and I started driving her senior year and she just turned 65,” said Decker.

Posted on 2021 Dec 01