For Paul Aasen, the wheels on the bus may go round and round and round again, but the steady swish of the wipers and chatter of school children are one of the most satisfying sounds in the world.
On any given school day, 6:45 a.m. will find the 74-year-old on the road to Cleveland, navigating the streets in a bright yellow school bus.
A veteran driver for Saints Bus Services, which buses students to and from St. Peter Public Schools, Aasen said he is technically retired.
But one year after leaving Gustavus Adolphus College’s administrative team to become a full-time volunteer for St. Peter’s First Lutheran Church, he was struck by an epiphany.
“One morning I woke up and thought it’d be fun to drive a school bus,” Aasen said with a laugh.
That was in 2001. Now, nearly 14 years later, Aasen said he plans on remaining a school bus driver for as long as he is physically able — it’s a job that he finds not only fun, but fulfilling.
“The kids were trying to guess how old I was a couple weeks ago,” he said with a laugh. “One of them guessed 35.”
Being able to talk to the kids he drives to and from school everyday is one of the things he finds most rewarding, he said. His goal is to be a mentor to them, by encouraging them to be respectful riders and students.
“That’s what motivates me in terms of being a driver,” Aasen said. “It’s not just driving the bus, it’s forming relationships with the students.”
Though he originally applied to be a bus driver with the intention of acting as a substitute, he has since opted for a regular route, hoping to build a rapport with the kids he picks up and drives to school every morning.
He can now be seen behind the wheel of bus No. 3, which picks up open enrollment students from Cleveland, students from Ottawa Township and some from St. Peter and drops them off at the St. Peter Middle/High School and South Elementary. The route takes about 90 minutes to navigate.
“I leave at 6:45 a.m. and I’m finished at 8 a.m.,” Aasen said.
He also picks up students each afternoon from the Hoffman Learning Center and drives them to the Minnesota Security Hospital for their afternoon physical education classes, he said.
Dan Hilligoss, manager at Saints Bus Services, said Aasen is an exemplary driver, well known for his commitment and zeal for the job.
“He’s been driving the same route for a long time,” Hilligoss said. The kids all know him … He’s got the safety of the children at heart. He makes them follow the rules, but he’s not overbearing.”
Hilligoss said Aasen is one of the most experienced drivers the company has, and even provides training for new Saints bus drivers.
Teaching a new generation of bus drivers to drive safely and responsibility is something the retiree said he enjoys greatly.
“Actually teaching, while I’ve never been a professional teacher, I’ve always enjoyed it,” Aasen said. “I’ve always enjoyed the opportunity to mentor students.”
And getting to work alongside the drivers, many of whom are either retirees, or in the case of two men who once rode on his bus as students — former riders — is just another perk of the job.
“I’d say another thing that motivates me driving a school bus is working with a great group of drivers,” Aasen said. “What I do is not unique. We all have a similar purpose, to serve our students well.”
But at the end of the day, it’s all about the kids, he said. Aasen said he pays great attention to driving safely and responsibly, well aware that he is transporting some very precious cargo.
“One of the things you learn quickly when you’re driving bus is that it doesn’t pay to be in a hurry,” Aasen said, adding that he hates driving in heavy fog the most. “Being five or 10 minutes late isn’t much at all if it means driving responsibly.”
The knowledge that he’s providing a service — to the community and to the young students that step on and off his bus each day — makes it a fulfilling occupation, he said.
“I’m amazed how many students that get off the bus say ‘Thank you’ every evening,” Aasen said. “… I never get tired of hearing those words: ‘Thank you’.”
Reach reporter Jessica Bies at 507-931-8568 or follow her on Twitter.com @sphjessicabies