Years of commanding armored units in the Army had Don Stephens thinking he was equipped to deal with almost anything.
After retiring from the Army as a colonel in 1988, Stephens found that his military background might not have prepared him for his newest job: Columbia County school bus driver.
“You never know what you’re going to run into on a school bus,” said Stephens, who was recently honored as Columbia County’s Bus Driver of the Year during an appreciation luncheon for school system transportation employees. “The Army doesn’t prepare you for everything.
“I can’t tell the kids to come to attention,” he said with a chuckle. “That doesn’t work.”
While his 35 years with the Army sent him to Germany, Vietnam and South America on various assignments, these days Stephens works closer to home.
A school bus driver in the county for 21 years, Stephens’ route takes him to Greenbrier Middle and High schools and Riverside Elementary School.
Between morning and afternoon routes, Stephens keeps busy training new drivers. Stephens also transports students on field trips, athletic and band events and JROTC competitions.
“It keeps me young,” said Stephens, who turns 76 in January. “It gets me up early in the morning.
“It gets me going.”
Stephens said after a year or so of milling around his home as a retiree, he became restless and read a newspaper article stating bus drivers were needed.
“I got to thinking, I don’t remember any of my elementary (school) teachers,” he said, “but I remember my first school bus driver when I was 5 years old.
“He made quite an impression on me and I thought, ‘Well, maybe I can do that.’”
Stephens started out at Stevens Creek Elementary School in 1991 and later drove pupils at Lakeside Middle School and Greenbrier and Evans High schools.
Stephens’ top priority throughout the years has remained each child’s safety and well-being, he said.
While some days are more challenging than others, Stephens said he is often reminded why his job is worthwhile by the end of the day.
“By the time I go over and pick up the little ones, and they give me a hug or something, it wipes it all out,” he said.
Stephens added that he has no plans to retire.
“As long as my eyes are OK, and my reflexes are good and I still have some patience, I’ll probably keep driving,” he said.
Through the hard work of mechanic Louis Frank, bus drivers like Stephens stay up and running.
“I try to help them out when I can,” Frank said. “They’re very precious to me.”
Frank was named the transportation department’s Support Staff Person of the Year during the Oct. 19 luncheon.
The respect Frank has earned from those around him is evident.
Last year, Frank was asked to step into a supervisory role while the fleet service manager was deployed overseas.
Frank’s work isn’t limited to the shop. He also fills in as a substitute bus driver for special needs children.
Seeing those students’ progress is what Frank finds so rewarding.
“I’ve seen kids who couldn’t walk that are walking now,” he said.
Because he thoroughly enjoys his job, Frank said he’s missed only three days of work in more than 18 years – even after being briefly hospitalized for a heart concern.
The 68-year-old doesn’t see himself retiring any time soon, either.
“To me, when the drivers are happy, the kids are happy,” Frank said. “Then I’m happy.”
Stephens and Frank were part of a small group of transportation employees nominated for the honors by their peers. The two men were interviewed and then chosen by a three-member committee made up of school system personnel.
Sondra Hogan, who headed up the interview team, said Stephens and Frank were selected for their enthusiasm, dedication and many years of service.
“They’re like a big family unit,” said Hogan, an executive secretary in the school system central office. “They truly care about the children.”