Elkhart's retiring bus drivers share memories

No air conditioning, snowstorms and priceless memories: These retiring Elkhart bus drivers have decades of experience driving local children to and from school every day.

Posted on June 6, 2014 at 2:33 p.m.

At first, the members of the group didn’t know exactly what to say about their decades at the helms of Elkhart Community Schools’ buses.

It’s hard to choose a favorite memory, and they’d rather not say — at least, not for the paper — what the challenges of the job were.

But then Kathy Williams, who’s driven a bus for 23 years, broke the ice, saying the best part of the job for her was watching kids develop and grow over the years. 

"It’s very gratifying,” she said softly.

Then the other drivers, who sat around a table at the district’s transportation facility on Friday, June 6, chipped in.

There have been fun times (getting wedding invitations and baby announcements from former students) and not-so-fun times (waking up at dawn, getting buses going in the dead of winter and no air conditioning in the warmer months).

The group of 10 is part of a total of 16 bus drivers and helpers with the district who are retiring with the close of the school year. The drivers will be replaced, and their ranks will be bolstered with several new people to improve transportation routes — one of the promises of the referendum passed this spring.


Elkhart schools is holding a job fair to find bus drivers from 9 a.m. to noon Saturday, June 7, at the Elkhart Area Career Center, 2424 California Road. 

There are about 20 positions open.

The bus drivers are retiring for different reasons. Some want to spend more time with family. Some want to start getting pension payments from the state before changes go into effect this coming fall.

Pennie Watson, who brought her dog Tie Tie along for the interview, has an interesting story to tell. She drove her first school bus when she was just 15 years old. 

That wasn't an Elkhart bus, but Watson — who’s now 64 — has still seen plenty of changes since that first day behind the wheel.

This group remembers a day when a bus driver could stop the bus and tell a misbehaving kid to get out and walk home.

"You can’t do that anymore,” Watson said.

"The scary part is, (the kids) are always going to remember us,” Barbara Windbigler, another of the drivers, said. ”When I tell people I’m a bus driver they tell me stories about their bus drivers — from 40 or 50 years ago.”

Cathy VanDerGriff, who said driving a school bus is “the best job I've ever had” turns the conversation serious when she adds that students sometimes look to their bus drivers for support they aren't getting at home.

“These kids are a blessing,” VanDerGriff said firmly. “Kids today are hurting, and they need — ”

“Good drivers,” Watson cuts in. “They need good helpers and good drivers.”

Follow reporter Lydia Sheaks on Twitter at @LydiaSheaks

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