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They ferry 51,000 kids a day. School bus drivers who have done it safely for a long time earn a reward.
By DONNA WINCHESTER, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published October 30, 2002
LARGO -- Milton Fleming has risen before dawn for 30 years to go to a job that doesn't end until after 5 p.m. He has always been on time and has rarely taken a sick day.
Over the years, he has covered an incalculable number of miles and has come in contact with thousands of children. Through a combination of luck and skill, he has not had an accident at work or in his personal life since Oct. 8, 1972, his first day on the job as a bus driver for Pinellas County schools.
Last week, Fleming, 61, joined 31 other drivers at a luncheon at the Walter Pownall Service Center to honor drivers who have been accident free for 10 years or more. Transportation department accident and records clerk Polly Frush and field support trainer Brenda Lewis organized the luncheon to recognize some of the "unsung heroes" who safely transport 51,000 schoolchildren throughout the district each day.
"They're amazing," Lewis said. "They drive with the equivalent of two classrooms of children behind them with only a mirror to look in. They're like the postman. Come rain or shine, they keep going."
After three decades, it isn't the hours or the children that bother Fleming. The most difficult part of his job, he said, are the drivers with whom he shares the road.
Rosemary Smith, 58, who has been an accident-free bus driver for 20 years, agrees that other drivers are the most frustrating part of the job.
"I pray every morning," she said. "I take God along with me every day. I've been fortunate."
Smith, who drives to and from John Hopkins Middle School and Boca Ciega High School, said the children are the most rewarding part of her job. They show off their report cards and sometimes bring her gifts. She knows most of them by name and worries when she doesn't see one for a few days.
Donald Truchan, 67, another driver recognized for his safe driving record, also has developed a special rapport with students. The 13-year transportation department veteran drives disabled children to Pinellas Park High School and Nina Harris Exceptional Student Education Center.
He leaves the Walter Pownall compound each morning at 6 after doing a 40-point safety check and road test. With teacher assistants from Pinellas Park High on board, he begins picking up students door to door. He works a lift that raises students in wheelchairs in and out of the bus; the assistants secure students inside the bus. The route takes much longer than those for general education students, but he says there are rewards.
"I like to joke around a lot," he said. "If I can get a positive response from these children, I feel I've done something to cheer them up."
After he delivers the high school students, he returns to the compound to pick up assistants from Nina Harris. He begins making rounds once again, arriving at the school around 9:30 a.m. He goes home for a few hours and arrives back at Pinellas Park High at 1:15 p.m. He takes the students home, delivers the assistants to their cars, and goes back to Nina Harris. He takes those children home and gets back to the compound around 5 p.m.
Truchan said he encountered an unexpected perk when he had been on the job for about four years. He met his future wife while taking a break in the teachers lounge at Sawgrass Elementary School.
"She was a bus driver from the Clearwater compound, and I was a driver from the Lealman compound," he said. "When I walked into the teachers lounge that day, she fluttered her eyelashes at me and introduced herself."
A mutual friend gave him Jo Ellen Pensinger's phone number. They married a year and a half later, and have continued to drive school buses ever since, crossing paths at Pinellas Park High at the beginning of their afternoon runs.
"We usually pull in one bus in front of the other," said Mrs. Truchan, 60. "If our students aren't out there, one of us climbs on the other's bus and we sit and talk. It's really neat because we have so much in common. If one of has a problem on our route, we sympathize with each other. We understand what the other is going through."
The Truchans sat side by side at the luncheon Wednesday enjoying chicken wings, carved ham, potato salad and fruit salad. They grew serious when the subject of safety came up.
"I think it's important that people know it's not an easy job out there with traffic being like it is," Truchan said. "Please stop for school buses. It is extremely important."
On the other side of the room, Milton Fleming echoed Truchan.
"When you get up in the morning you say, 'I hope I have a safe day.' "
Drivers honored for 10 or more years of safe driving at last Wednesday's luncheon include Milton Fleming, 30 years; Frank Kendrick, 27 years; Margie Moan, 22 years; Margaret Williams, 21 years; Rosa Smith, 19 years; Timothy Dean, 18 years; Deborah Smith, 17 years; Orena Evans, 16 years; Cynthia Cole, Mary Kocher, Mattie Paschal, Frank Rood Jr. and Cheryl Thomas, 15 years; Alice Perkins, 14 years; Addie Jackson, Iris Mitchell, Rose Ruberti and Donald Truchan, 13 years; Nellie Flowers, Stephanie Haynes, Dorothy Martin and Jo Ellen Truchan, 12 years; Joseph Akers, Kelvin Clark and Robert Wilson, 11 years; and Andrew Fafard, Rogenia Flowers, Walter Gubelius, Gregory Hardiman , Theda Hughes, Harry MacFarland and Ernest Shaw, 10 years.