50 years behind the wheel

Shenandoah County school bus driver Hilda Vann, of Maurertown, has been driving county students to and from school for 50 years. Rich Cooley/Daily

WOODSTOCK – Hilda Vann has been driving Shenandoah County school children to and from school for the past 50 years, and she is not planning on getting out of the driver’s seat anytime soon.

“I can’t remember a time that I ever got up and thought ‘I don’t want to do this,'” she said of her job with Shenandoah County Public Schools.

Vann said she enjoys the work she does and has made connections with many children over the years. Back when she first began, she said people would ask her why she does this job. They would tell her they would rather scrub floors or load a dump truck with a teaspoon than drive a school bus.

“If you want variety in your life, this is variety. This is a challenge,” she said.

Vann drives bus No. 103 and carries 64 passengers who range from grades preschool up through high school.

Shenandoah County school bus driver Hilda Vann looks in the rear-view mirror from the driver’s seat of her bus. Rich Cooley/Daily

Each student, she said, is unique, like a snowflake. She knows the name of each student on her bus and has built relationships with them. They talk about their day with her and show her their report cards.

She said last week she had an elementary school student ask her if seahorses have ears. Vann didn’t know the answer, so she got the others on the bus involved to help find the answer. A high school student in the back of the bus looked it up on a cell phone. And yes, seahorses do have ears and can hear.

Another time she had to help a young boy who didn’t want to get on the bus. She couldn’t leave him there, so she asked, “You’re having a bad day. You gotta come get on this bus right now because I’ve got to take these kids to school and I can’t leave you standing here. Do you need a hug?” The boy nodded yes. When they got to school, she asked if he needed another hug, and he hugged her back.

But she doesn’t let these relationships get in the way of her job, which she said is to safely transport students to and from school. She said she is fair, firm and friendly.

She explains the safety rules to the students at the start of the school year, such as keeping the noise level down, staying seated while the bus is in motion and being respectful of everyone on the bus.

“When they step on this bus they become our kids,” she said. “We either become a papa bear or a mama bear. We want to take them to school and home safely. They’re irreplaceable.”

Throughout the years, she said the buses have been through many upgrades and equates what she drives now to a Cadillac compared with what she drove when she first began driving buses.

Most of the updates are for safety. Among the changes, she said, are synchronized transmissions so a driver doesn’t have to double clutch to get from one gear to another, double mirrors on the sides of the bus to catch traffic in blind spots, stop signs, white tops to control temperature, tinted windows, cross bars that extend when the bus stops at a pick-up or drop-off point, four-way flashers, high seats, higher buses with more steps into the bus, security cameras, strobe lights on the top of the bus, intercom and radio to communicate bus to bus and bus to transportation office.

The transportation office also has software that tracks the buses throughout their routes. The local police departments also have this software in case of emergencies.

She added that these safety features are becoming more important as motorists stop noticing the buses.

“It amazes me that the people, particularly that have cell phones stuck to their ears, can’t see this big school bus,” she said. “And there are some that want to beat that yellow light.”

School bus drivers are trained to handle a number of difficult situations, including seizures, allergic reactions and diabetic emergencies. Through the use of the radios, they are able to contact local emergency services and get aid to a student much quicker than before, Vann said.

Safety wasn’t the only change to the transportation office. When Vann first started as a substitute driver, her pay was $5 per day. After a few years, it was increased to $7.90 per day and was a full-time position.

She said she didn’t do it for the money. She did it to be able to spend more time with her children.

This job, she stressed, isn’t for everybody.

“I think it takes patience, it takes understanding, it takes firmness, and I think you’ve got to have a little grit,” she said.

She said she would continue to drive her bus until she is physically unable to do so.

“Anytime that I don’t feel safe behind that wheel, that I can do a safe job, I’ll give you my keys,” she said.

Contact staff writer Kaley Toy at 540-465-5137 ext. 176, or ktoy@nvdaily.com