Medford bus drivers retire

After 109 combined years of transportation service for the Medford school district, Lorice and Rose Wilkie are moving out of the area this summer to be closer to their children, closing the book on careers of remarkable longevity. (Ryan Anderson/People’s Press)

MEDFORD — After 109 combined years of transportation service for the Medford school district, Lorice and Rose Wilkie are moving out of the area this summer to be closer to their children, closing the book on careers of remarkable longevity.

“It’s been a good job, sometimes challenging,” Lorice said. Fortunately, “I got to know how to get to a lot of different places” hauling students on field trips and to extracurricular events.

“I’m a person who likes to go places and see things,” he said. “I know all these country roads, and I love the scenery.”

Mark Ristau, Medford’s superintendent, said, “People like Lorice and Rose Wilkie are few and far between.”

“Their values and morals show through with how they treat people,” and “both of them have been so good to our district,” Ristau said. “We will miss them.”

Lorice routinely transported Medford’s football teams to games, pulling a trailer behind the bus, he fondly recalled. “It didn’t bother me to back up that trailer, but there are some people who just can’t back up trailers.”

Lorice loved nothing more than driving home a Medford sports team who had just won a game, said Bill Regan, one of the owners of the Owatonna Bus Company, which also handles Medford’s transportation. “That was the highlight of his day.”

Lorice and Rose have been driving for 57 and 52 years, respectively. Lorice has also held the title of transportation supervisor for 20 years.

“A lot of people would wear out” well before reaching milestones like 57 or 52 years, Regan said. “If not for the love they had for students, they wouldn’t have lasted that long.”

As transportation director, Lorice was responsible for “lining up trips, events, and routing, making sure they’re all covered,” Lorice said. “The most challenging time is spring, because all those sports are outside,” and rain frequently cancels events.

Lorice likes to do things the “old-fashioned way” when arranging transportation for new families, going to their homes, looking parents in the eyes, and introducing himself before explaining expectations on the bus, Ristau said. “Rose typically does the paperwork and makes Lorice look good.”

Lorice utilized a personal touch in his work, and “he was so good (with) that,” Regan said. “He loved the kids, and he followed their sports and other activities.”

Bus Driver Shortage

A hurdle not only in Medford, but other districts, is simply “having enough bus drivers,” Lorice said. “You can’t have that as your only job. You need another income.”

“We do have a shortage of drivers, not only in Medford, but all over,” Ristau seconded. “The schedule a driver is expected to follow has become more difficult,” and, add to that the fact there are there are “more consistent and higher paying jobs out there, it’s not for everyone.”

“Our drivers, and drivers in general, have a hard job,” Ristau added. “A school bus is an extension of the classroom where there are rules and expectations for safety reasons.”

Behavior of youth on buses has also evolved over the decades, and not in a positive direction.

Though “the majority do follow the rules, there are some who don’t think they need to follow instructions,” and while that “disrespect” used to be found only in teenagers, it now extends to younger students, Rose said. “Years back, if you were having problems, it was mostly teenagers, but now it’s at a younger age.”

Lorice concurred with his wife’s sentiments.

With younger riders, a stern look “used to be enough,” he said. “Now, they challenge you.”

Fortunately, Medford, as a district, “backs bus drivers 100%,” Lorice said. “Medford has been a good school to work with.”

“For students, it can be difficult to remain on their best behavior once they leave school and board a bus,” so “the result is trying to ensure the safest trip home while managing student behavior plus dealing with the weather,” Ristau said. “Bus drivers do not get enough credit.”

Rose made a habit of addressing behavioral concerns with parents before involving the school, she said. “I tried to go to parents” rather than “pink-slip them.”

“I felt that was important,” she said. “If that didn’t work, you can always write them up.”

In addition, “there’s a definite difference between” morning and afternoon routes, Lorice said. In the morning, the vast preponderance of passengers are docile, even sleepy, but in the afternoon, they’re “all wound up. You’d think they fed them candy or something at school.”

Because of their lengthy tenures driving in the district, it wasn’t uncommon for Lorice and Rose to transport children and grandchildren of individuals they hauled decades ago, Rose said. “You just did” the job, and, almost before one realizes it, another generation is walking onto the bus.

That longevity can bring a macabre sensation, as well, Lorice said. “There are kids we drove who have already died.”

The Evolution of Bus Driving

While Lorice has lived his entire life within a three-mile radius of their current home, Rose is originally from Iowa, and the pair married in 1960, he said. “I was farming with my dad,” and the possibility of a bus driver position opened in Medford, the district from which Lorice graduated.

He procured his license and began as a substitute driver when he was 22, he said. He soon landed regular duty, and, a few years later, Rose joined the district as a driver, initially to sub for her husband during harvest season so he could remain in the fields.

There are simply more cars on highways now than early in the tenures of Lorice and Rose, and fewer students ride buses, Rose said. It’s increasingly rare for a student 16 or older not to have his or her own vehicle to drive to school.

Most bus routes for Medford last roughly an hour, but drivers shifted assigned routes regularly, Lorice said. No matter the route, they were always awake by 5:45 a.m. and on the road to their first stops by 6:30 a.m.

“Drivers never kept the same route” for long, Rose said. “Lorice and I have probably driven every route Medford has.”

Buses themselves have improved markedly over the course of their careers, Lorice said. His latest bus was “pleasant to drive,” a “Cadillac compared to what I started with.”

However, costs have also increased, he said. “You could get a bus for $8,000, but now they’re $98,000.”

Weather Challenges

Early in his tenure, “there was no intercom between buses and the school, so you were on your own,” Lorice said. “If you got stuck, you sent a kid — or you went — to a farm to use their phone.”

In fact, during one blizzard early in Lorice’s career, his bus was stuck in a snowbank, so he walked a quarter-mile to the nearest residence to call his superintendent, he said. Eventually, the owner of the household was able to extricate the bus from the snowbank, but that took until about 11 a.m., so when he phoned his superintendent again — as the snow continued to fall — he was told to “take the kids back home and forget about it.”

Situations like that have become rarer and rarer, because districts are much more willing to cancel classes during severe weather than when Lorice and Rose began their driving tenures, he said. “They used to never call off school.”

In addition, “roads are better,” he said. “They’re plowed better, too.”

Rose’s worst weather experience occurred relatively recently, on what was a damp-but-docile spring day.

“Everything was fine, but about 15 minutes into my (afternoon) route, whoa, it just changed to ice,” she said. “I was on ice the whole time, but I made it, except going up one hill.”

On her third attempt, she slid into a ditch and was there for hours, because “everyone who tried to pull me out slid into the ditch, even the tow truck,” she said. “Everybody got stuck that day.”

Despite that setback, “I didn’t mind driving in the winter,” she said. “I guess it was kind of a challenge.”

Safety on the Roads

In any conditions, bus drivers must take “wider corners” than the “sharp turns” one can execute in cars, Rose said. Furthermore, “you use your mirrors more, and you’re more conscious of following road rules.”

Overall, the regulations bus drivers must follow “make you a better driver” even when not piloting buses, Lorice said. “You’re more observant.”

The school district had a special reception for Lorice and Rose in June at the Medford bus garage to commend their years of service. The couple also received a banner from the district.

Lorice and Rose were both dedicated to the safety of their passengers, first and foremost, Regan said. “Student safety was primary.”

Reach Reporter Ryan Anderson at 507-444-2376 or follow him on Twitter @randerson_ryan

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