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Ending 50 years at the wheel of a school bus...

What were you doing in August 1969 and do you remember any of the details? Marshall Johnson does.

5/22/19 (Wed)

What were you doing in August 1969 and do you remember any of the details? Marshall Johnson does.

Donnybrook resident Marshall Johnson has been driving school bus for the Donnybrook and Kenmare districts since then and remembers his first ride very well.

Johnson announced he is retiring at the end of this school year, which is Thursday.

“Yes, I remember my first trip,” he said. “It was raining cats and dogs and there was heavy fog. I knew the road, but I had a bus load of kids. I remember it like it was yesterday. I picked up those kids and now I’m picking up their grandchildren.”

His first extracurricular trip was also that year and he took the band kids to Minot. He later drove the basketball team to every game until the school closed in 1988.

It’s hard to put such a long and successful career into perspective and Johnson had an interesting way of explaining it.

“I started going to school at a country school and have been in the public school system for 65 years,” he said. “1969 was the year we got married. My wife started teaching in Donnybrook and they needed a driver for sporting events. Nineteen years later Donnybrook consolidated and I brought my first load of kids to Kenmare that fall.”

If you can’t imagine the time span of Johnson’s career, here’s another perspective.

That was the year Zip to Zap happened, Woodstock drew 350,000 people, Neil Armstrong became the first man to set foot on the moon, the Beatles made their final public appearance, the Public Broadcasting System was established and the war in Vietnam was ramping up.

When Johnson turns in his keys and bus for the last time in slightly longer than 24 hours, it will have been the fourth brand-new bus he has driven in his career, and it has more than 200,000 miles on the odometer.

“My first bus was a 1956 International,” he said. “I’ve put on well over a million miles and in that time no kids got hurt, I never went in the ditch and I have never received a ticket.”

He says he doesn’t currently have the longest route, but has the most time consuming route, making numerous 90-degree turns that keeps his bus from exceeding 35 miles per hour.

From Donnybrook, Johnson goes north out of the Des Lacs Valley and zig zags northward to the Renville County line. It’s 31 miles from Donnybrook to Tolley, then it’s on to Mouse River Park, back down N.D. Highway 5 to Norma, then back into Kenmare.

“That’s 90 miles a trip if everybody rides,” he said. “In winter, the first kid gets on at 6:35 a.m., and everybody gets home before 6. It’s a long run, not in miles but in time.”

He added, “There used to be more routes and the buses weren’t as good as they are now. The early runs were 50 or 60 miles anyway. I drove one of the last buses I rode on as a kid.”

Often times Johnson will alter the route, depending on who isn’t riding the bus that day.

Once upon a time, when Johnson started his illustrious career, driving bus was a cookie-cutter scenario. You leave home, you stop at farm 1, 2 and 3 and you take the kids to school.

It’s far from that in today’s world, according to Johnson. As his interview was being conducted, he received four text messages from parents whose kids weren’t riding that afternoon.

That’s just how the world works these days. Both parents have jobs, right now it’s spring’s work and there are athletic events going on that will keep kids off the route.

“I prefer a text for me to get the message,” he said. “I don’t mind it if a kid isn’t riding and if I go right by their house, it doesn’t really matter. What’s frustrating is if I have to go several miles out of the way and they don’t ride. It’s a waste of time and I could have left 10 minutes later.”

He calls his route a zoo and sometimes a circus because it is impossible to memorize the changes. There’s no way all the changes could be memorized, which is why texting is the best way to communicate with parents and/or responsible teenagers.

“It’s hard to keep it all straight and I won’t drop off little kids and leave them alone,” Johnson said. “The parent have really been good. They watch out for their kids, they watch out for me and they start calling if I’m behind schedule, especially in bad weather. What makes it unique is both parents are working and that’s just a progression of economics.”

He’s had plenty of that to deal with over 50 winters and isn’t going to miss that.

He said the Tolley Fire Department has had to rescue him twice because of massive snow drifts in the roadway.

As he said earlier, he’s never gone in the ditch, but he has been stuck smack dab in the middle of the road.

“One time I didn’t get in until 12:30 because I was stuck in the middle of the road,” Johnson said. “Other times I was back tracking of the road being drifted shut. What are going to do? Turn around and go back, if you can.”

Johnson has never driven bus for a private company. It’s always been the public school system. He said Donnybrook and Kenmare have always owned their own buses.

When Donnybrook consolidated with Kenmare in 1988, Kenmare had nine routes. Now it’s five. He doesn’t remember how many bus drivers have come and gone, but Johnson is part of a unique trio.

Johnson, Herb Schwede and Roger Johnson, are not only all of Donnybrook, but the three of them have been driving collectively for 126 years.

Enter Laura Mibeck, a science teacher from Donnybrook who has been sub driving this spring, so in effect, four of the five, at least for a very short time, at the end of Johnson’s career, have been from the small community of Donnybrook.  

“I talked Roger into being one of my sub drivers and that has to be 25 years ago,” he said. “But the three of us have been out of Donnybrook the majority of the time.”

He says his route takes five to six hours every day. Most people don’t realize it, but there is a lot more to driving a public school bus than driving from point A to point B.

He said things have to get done, thus the driving time is about half of the work day.

As an example, the bus had to be washed, the windshield has to be cleaned, the bus has to be swept out and sometimes he has to talk to the parents and/or the superintendent about a kid who may have gotten a little too rowdy on the route.

“And that’s the routine,” he said. “Sometimes there’s vomit, a blood spill or other germs. Guess who gets to clean that up?”

Just like the Farmers Insurance TV commercial, Johnson knows a thing or two because he has seen a thing or two.

He describes having seen just about everything you can imagine.

“I think I could teach a class in child psychology after all the kids I’ve seen,” he said. “I’ve seen everything from all out brawls to back seat romance. When that happens there’s only one winner and that’s the driver.”

He has seen little children cling to their parents because they are so scared to get on the bus for the first time and three stops down the road, they are laughing and forgot about their parents, until tomorrow.

Johnson said he’s had some rowdy kids which can get extremely frustrating. In a lot of those situations, those kids board the bus the next day and give Johnson a hug or tell him that he is the best bus driver because he treats them the same as everyone else.

He usually gets accolades from the kids when he gets back from vacation.

‘“I’m so glad you’re back from vacation,’” some kids will say,” Johnson described. “I ask why?” ‘“Because you treat me like a real person.”’

There have been other times, long after his kids have grown up, in which they will stop in to see him or write him a note to give him a compliment. That tells him he must have done something right and that’s the legacy he’s leaving.

Many years ago, he said he had a boy on the bus who lit himself on fire. Driving down the road, Johnson smelled something burning and when he looked back, the kid’s left arm was on fire.

He quickly took his jacket and wrapped it around the child’s arm to smother the blazed. The kid was banned from riding the bus after that.

Johnson had a situation in which a kid came to the front of the bus and even before they can blurt out they don’t feel good, vomited on his neck. He admitted that was a little creepy.

“I’ve seen the gamut of emotions; sad, happy, tragedy, it all affects you,” he said. “Sometimes I’ve had to pull the bus over to get my composure.”

One time, Johnson was accused of striking a child and he never left his seat. He said other students interviewed said the same thing and it could have been his career, but after six months, the matter was settled and Johnson exonerated.

“Nowadays, we can pull the video,” he said. “It’s a hard drive and we can look at it on the superintendent’s computer. I don’t think there is a driver out there who hasn’t used them. When that happened to me, I took it to the school board and they immediately had cameras installed.”

When asked how the Kenmare School District is going to replace him, Johnson said everybody is replaceable and a lot more people can drive a bus than most assume, such as teachers, coaches and parents.

“There’s got to be somebody,” he said. “The only thing they can’t replace is experience. You will make it work or quit.”

According to Johnson, the little children perceive the bus driver to know everything from where is the Eiffel Tower to take me to Grandma’s house tonight.

“What’s your name,” Johnson would ask? “Nicole,” the child responded. “What’s your mom’s name?” “Mom.” By now he realizes he’s not getting too far so he asks, “who is your grandma?” The child replies, “Grandma.”

He said he should have written a book about all the things the children have told him over five decades.

Just as he looked forward to get into his new career a half century ago, Johnson is now looking forward to seeing more of his grandchildren and the events they are involved in such as concerts or fishing. He said his wife told him he’s been happier since he made up his mind to hang up the bus keys.

Johnson said he’s not going to miss driving at all. About the only thing that will be obviously different is there won’t be a school bus sitting in front of Johnson’s shop in Donnybrook. For the past 41 years, his bus has been a fixture adjacent to the building.

But bus driving isn’t all Johnson’s done in his life. He spent 17 years as mayor of Donnybrook, was on the Donnybrook Fire Department 41 years, spent nine years as president of the Upper Souris Water Users and is a supervisor for the national departments of agriculture.

And it was May 1969, when Johnson considered going to Zip to Zap. He said he backed out because it was too cold to be at an outdoor party.

He was also drafted to go to Vietnam. He scored well on all the preliminary tests and sold his car. It was his intent to get into the system and move up the ladder so if he had to go in the trenches, it wouldn’t have to be for a long time.

When he had his full physical, a childhood back injury and his heart kept him from going to Southeast Asia.

“I didn’t go to Vietnam, but I drove bus for 50 years,” he said. “I guess the Lord had a plan.”

Johnson said he probably wouldn’t have driven this long had it not been for his wife teaching in Donnybrook.

“What a career,” he said. “It’s been a hell of a ride.” ... Read EVERY WORD on EVERY PAGE of The Kenmare News by subscribing--online or in print!