By Jared Janzen
HALSTEAD—Driving a school bus entails more than just working the gas pedals and steering wheel, according to longtime bus driver Walter Clark
“You’re a medical technician at times, a counselor, a comforter, a negotiator, a housekeeper, and maybe even a lawyer,” he said.
The occasion Clark had to be a lawyer came about after a boy broke a girl’s new headband that had cost her a dollar, which Clark got the boy to agree pay back.
“But then she said, ‘I want three dollars,’” he recalled. “And I said, ‘Now wait a minute; you just said that headband cost you a dollar, so why do you want $3?’ ‘Well, because he’s hurt my feelings and it’s upset me.’ So I guess she wanted punitive damages on top of it. But I said, ‘No, that’s not going to work.’”
Over the past 40 years of driving a school bus for the Halstead-Bentley School District, Clark has had many stories, such as that one. He retired from bus driving at the end of December and said he’ll miss seeing the kids every day.
“That’s one of the things I’ll miss: the relationships with the kids and with the parents,” Clark said. “I’ll still maybe run into them once in a while, but it won’t be the same.”
He also said he made some super friends among his fellow employees, and he’ll miss their fellowship.
It was back in 1980 when Clark’s children were both in grade school that he heard the district needed a bus driver, and he thought it could be a good fit for him.
His first year, he drove for Halstead in the morning and for Burrton in the afternoon, but by his second year, a route opened up for him to drive for Halstead in both morning and afternoon.
“I’ve been on that route ever since,” he said.
Since he already had experience with farm trucks, he said it hadn’t been too difficult learning to drive a bus.
“It’s just the psychological part of it being bigger, but it wasn’t that hard,” he said.
Clark drove the route to the northeast of Halstead.
“The district kind of zigzags; it’s not straight by any means, but at one point, it goes all the way east to Meridian on the west side of Newton,” he said. “It went from five miles north of [Highway] 50 to four miles south of 50.”
He usually reported to work at 5:50 a.m. to warm the bus up, hitting the road by 6:10. After he’d finish his route, he’d then take a load of students from Halstead to Bentley Primary School. In the afternoon, he’d do the reverse, starting about 2:40 p.m. at Bentley and wrapping up by 4:30.
Last year, his route averaged 117 miles a day. In his 40 years, Clark has experienced all kinds of driving conditions.
He recalled a day about 15 years ago when he came over the crest of a hill early in the morning and found a bridge completely submerged in water.
“I had never seen any water there even up to the road, but when I came of the crest of that hill, you couldn’t see nothing but water. There was no bridge, no nothing but like looking over a lake.”
On another occasion, it was an icy day and Clark had brought his bus to a stop at a stop sign out in the country.
“It felt like we were moving, and I looked down at the front and we weren’t going forward,” he said. “But just setting there, with the brakes on, [the back end of] the bus had slowly slide over and up against the stop sign to where it was almost but not quite crossways with the road.”
His bus got stuck in snow on a couple occasions. He’s also had to deal with blizzard-like conditions.
“Just as I crossed a bridge, it was a complete white-out,” he said. “You couldn’t see nothing beyond the windshield. Nothing whatsoever.”
But through all the bad weather and the thousands of miles he drove, he kept his kids safe—with a little help from above.
“In the 40 years I’ve driven, that’s accident free, and for the kids being kept safe, along with myself and the bus, I definitely give all the credit to that to God,” he said. “That only happened because of Him. You can do the best you can do, but to have that happen over 40 years—it’s only by His grace.”
Clark also drove activity buses for his first 25 years, until he became transportation facilitator. The furthest he traveled to was Ulysses in western Kansas when his son was a senior. It was about 1 a.m. by the time they got back. He’s also driven bus as far south as Enid, Okla., and as far east as Kansas City, Mo.
Clark also served as transportation facilitator for about 13 years, which entailed a lot of things, he said.
“You make sure the buses are in operational condition,” he said. “In the summertime, they all have to be inspected by a mechanic and by the highway patrol. All of the cars, trucks, vans that the school owns, you’re responsible for the upkeep and service in running condition.”
He would also schedule drivers for activity trips and help with discipline situations when needed.
“You always have one or two that want to see what your limits are, but for the most part, I’ve had a good route and a lot of good kids,” Clark said. “That’s one of the great benefits of driving a bus—you meet a lot of great kids with a lot of great parents. I’ve made a lot of friends, and the friendships still last to this day. That’s a blessing.”
It seems that students will be missing Clark, as well.
“The week before I retired, I had two or three of them in the primary school, they asked me not to retire,” he said. “The next day, they asked me not to retire again, and I said, ‘When can I retire then?’ And she said, ‘When we graduate from high school.’”
Clark said he had several families where he drove students from two generations. He even knew of one family where three generations had ridden on his bus.
He’s enjoyed seeing kids grow up, get married, and enter their professions. Some of the kids who rode his bus have gone on to become a doctor, physician assistant, or chief of police.
Clark’s retirement from driving school buses coincides with his retirement from serving on the Halstead Township Board, a position he held for 32 years. He said he hadn’t planned on the two retirements happening at the same time, but it just kind of worked out that way.
He said he’s been asked if he’ll get bored now, but he said living on a farm, there’s always lots of things to do. He’d also like to do some traveling once the pandemic is over. For now, his plans for retirement are simple.
“Just enjoy not getting up at 4:30 in the morning,” he said.