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3-million miles of safety for this bus driver

HARTline's Samuel Baker, who drives route No. 32, is honored by the National Safety Council for his clean record in 36 years on the job.

Published April 19, 2004

TAMPA - Samuel Baker has traveled the distance to the moon and back more than six times.

He's been far enough to circle the Earth 120 times.

To Daytona Beach and back, 10,714 times.

Baker, 66, is a bus driver for HARTline. In his 36 years on the job, he has clocked more than 3-million miles. All without a preventable accident.

At the end of April, Baker will be awarded the 3-Million Mile Safety Award from the National Safety Council. "I feel very good," Baker grinned, "because it's something that I earned."

And it is no easy task.

"When you're out there every day, you're up against these bad drivers. ... you're in trouble out there, so you have to defend yourself," Baker said.

At about 6 feet tall, Baker has black hair sprinkled with grey and two gold teeth. He was born in Jamaica to farmers, and says he has always liked motor vehicles. He worked on ship engines before moving to Florida in 1962, and drove big rigs for the Campbell's Soup Co. and for Whitney and McKenzie Tank Lines in Tampa, where he also was the first black mechanic.

In 1968, he walked into Tampa Transit (now HARTline) looking for a job, and he has been there ever since.

"Years ago, there was nothing around this place, there wasn't much in Tampa in those days, there was no mall, no interstates," Baker said.

Back then, drivers made their own route schedules, they made change for passengers. Traffic wasn't much of a problem.

Things are much different today. Now the schedule he must keep is unforgiving. Congested traffic slows him down, but he stays calm and doesn't let it bother him.

"I think that the most extraordinary thing about him is that he can be so cheerful and kind, and at the same time stay so focused on driving," said Sharon Dent, executive director of HARTline. "That's really what it takes, just pure focus, not to have accidents for that extended period of time."

Driving route No. 32 for the past four years, Baker has his routine down to a science. At 10 a.m. Monday through Friday, he meets his bus at the Netpark Transfer Center, at Hillsborough Avenue and 56th Street, and begins his inspection. Adjust the mirrors. Check the tires. Look for dents and scratches. Make sure all the lights are working.

Once he's satisfied that everything is in tip-top shape, he pulls away at precisely 10:12 a.m., and heads for the Wal-Mart in Seffner. Baker's route spans most of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, from Seffner to Himes Avenue, south on Himes Avenue, west on Columbus Drive, then down S Dale Mabry Highway, all the way to Britton Plaza, and back again. At the end of the day, he has driven the route six times.

It's a route that serves everyone from gamblers to hospital patients, with stops at Raymond James Stadium, St. Joseph's Hospital, Plant High School, Belmont Heights, Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, Florida State Fairgrounds and Sabal Park.

He won't return to his maroon Ford F-150 truck until 8:17 p.m.

Then he heads to his Thonotosassa home and his three dogs. Baker used to raise chickens, geese, ducks and turkeys, but it got to be too much for him, so now he spends his downtime tending to his tropical gardens. He never had children, but was married for more than 30 years. His wife, Pearl, died in 1992.

Now the passengers are his family. He knows about their kids, grandchildren and even what the doctors tell them.

"I love to be around people," Baker said.

But don't even try any excuses for not having bus fare, he's not buying it. Not even for the mayor. Baker said that in 1971, then-Mayor Dick Greco, in his first term, got onto his bus to ride through downtown, thinking he'd get a free ride. Baker wouldn't pull away until Greco put his 25-cent fare in. He has even kicked a City Council member off for not having enough money. He's only doing his job, he says. But he does carry a pocketful of change just in case someone needs a nickel, dime or even quarters.

Still wearing the old-fashioned hat like the one Jackie Gleason's bus driver character Ralph Kramden wore on The Honeymooners, Baker said laughing, "I'm the only one who still wears it. It's part of the original bus operator uniform."

Baker is no stranger to winning prizes. In 1993, he was honored with the Million Mile Safety Award by the National Safety Council, Driver of the Month by HARTline, and was recognized by the Florida Transit Association as its Driver of the Year. In 1998, he was once again honored by the National Safety Council with the 2-Million Mile Safety Award, and in 2000, was selected as Driver of the Millennium and the Driver of the Month both from the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority.

Who knows, maybe we'll see Baker drive his way to the moon a few more times. He isn't planning on retiring any time soon; he loves the people too much.

"Where there are people, there is life. Where there are no people, there is no life," Baker said.

- Times staff researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report. Olivia Gifford can be reached at 226-3339 or by e-mail at

[Last modified April 19, 2004, 01:05:27]

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