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Schwede reflects on 50-year bus driving career...

When Herb Schwede doesn’t have kids on the bus, he thinks about his hobbies and enjoys the occasional deer, moose or rabbit along the route. But when kids are aboard, his thoughts take on a serious tone.

9/11/18 (Tue)

When Herb Schwede doesn’t have kids on the bus, he thinks about his hobbies and enjoys the occasional deer, moose or rabbit along the route. But when kids are aboard, his thoughts take on a serious tone.

As soon as the first kids boards and the last one leaves, his priority shifts to the safety of the children; getting them to school and back home each day.

And he admits, that can sometimes be a challenge, especially in the winter along the northern tier of North Dakota.

“They did a survey that says bus driving is the most stressful job in winter,” Schwede said. “There’s days when nobody should be out driving, but we are.”

Schwede is one of five bus drivers for the Kenmare district that includes him, Marshall Johnson and Roger Johnson, all from Donnybrook and all who have decades of driving experience.

Retired teacher Merle Wallstrum drives a fourth bus and the fifth route is currently open with temporary drivers filling in the gap.

Schwede has been driving a school bus for the past 50 years for the Donnybrook and Kenmare districts. Marshall Johnson is closing in on completing 50 years.

Schwede just started his 51st year and is now considering retiring, but left the door open to continue after 2019.

“I had made up my mind, I was going to 50 years,” he said. “But as long as I feel comfortable, I’ll keep driving. If not, I’ll quit.”

When Schwede started driving bus in 1968, it was nearly a year before the first moon landing, Richard Nixon was president and the Vietnam War was ramping up.

To most anyone, that would seem like a long time. To Schwede it’s been a routine that he has thoroughly enjoyed.

He calls himself crazy for sticking it out all these years, but in reality, he’s quite comfortable behind the wheel with children in the seats behind him.

Schwede started out as a substitute driver. He drove for Harvey Steinberger for about five months, then took players to basketball games and the following spring, a teacher who was driving bus quit, so he finished out the year, which was about a year after his former driver took him for a ride and asked if he’d be interested.

He’s been doing it ever since. Whether it was Donnybrook or Kenmare or both, Schwede has been on the bus longer than the ages of the parents of the kids he transports.

In fact, very early in his career, Roger Johnson rode his bus to school in Donnybrook.

Bus driving isn’t for everyone, as he points out. He said the schedule often negates many who would otherwise drive because they would have to have a job that would allow them to take time off morning and afternoon.

He said farmers who drive, often lose money, especially at harvest, so they often have substitutes drive for them through the season.

The Kenmare School Board has talked numerous times about what it will do when the current drivers retire.

In fact, there is a severe shortage of school bus drivers statewide and schools are now looking at incentives such as sign on bonuses, benefits or the purchase of mini buses to make it a little easier.

According to Schwede, you have to want to do this, at least to some extent to make it a career, or 2 1/2 careers in Schwede’s case.

Things have sure changed during his career. Buses went from gas to diesel which he says, keeps them running longer, and from manual to automatic transmissions that are easier to drive.

The biggest change, however, has been in technology. It used to be that he would talk to parents in person or on a land line whether or not the kids would be riding the bus.

These days, text messages are exchanged, which he calls pretty slick.

“I couldn’t always remember when I’d get calls, so I had a note pad behind the mirror,” he said. “Now the parents just text me. The first girl isn’t riding today so I can leave 10 minutes later. We’re not supposed to talk on the phone and we hardly do. It’s all by text message today.”

Schwede has 21 kids on his bus, if they are all riding and the first kid got on Friday morning at 6:47 a.m. That same elementary student would be the last one off when the 75-mile, one-way route is completed. His route translates to about 22,000 miles a year.

When he leaves his house in Ward County, the first pickup is in Mountrail County. The bus travels back into Ward County, picks up several passengers, then goes into Burke County. Following that, it’s back into Ward County, another country road into Burke County and finally back to Ward County at Niobe to take the kids into Kenmare to school.

Schwede has hit five deer and one rabbit over the years and has seen plenty of moose, but has never had a close encounter with one.

He said the most interesting time in his career was when U.S. Highway 52 was rebuilt. He and Marshall Johnson had to wait for pilot cars and were often late to school, so at one point, he contacted Harris Construction in Kenmare and asked if he and Marshall could circumvent the flaggers.

“If we went off the main road to pick up kids, the pilot car would be gone and we’d have to wait,” Schwede said. “We were told to pick them up and when we came out on the highway to keep our lights flashing and bypass the flaggers.”

Another interesting day was on U.S. 52. He was ahead of a semi-trailer and pickup, turning onto N.D. 50.

“I put on my blinker and went into the left turning lane,” Schwede said. “The semi went past me but I didn’t see the pickup. When I looked left to turn, it was right beside me.”

Most of his route is pavement, but some of those minimum maintenance roads can get dicey in the winter.

“The last two years have been easy, but before that, we had lots of snow,” Schwede said. “I guess I don’t mind the ice, if it isn’t windy. I just wonder sometimes in the winter why I do this.”

A good reason is because of the interaction with his passengers and their parents. At one stop Friday, the family dog wanted to hop on board with the children and at another, he said he helped build the house that family lives in.

Over the years, he had one student, Erica Lemer, he called the most well-behaved kid he ever encountered. She has her own family now, but Schwede said she’ll often contact him just to chat.

One day, Schwede pulled into the yard and Erica was waiting to board. He opened the door, but motioned to her with his hands to look to her right just beyond the gate. There was a bull moose standing there. He said she made a bee line for the bus in about 2 seconds.

He knows the habits of people and says some are better than others about letting him know if the kids are riding or not. And each day he meets a silver Chevrolet pickup at the U.S. 52 and N.D. Highway 50 interchange. On Friday he met that pickup shortly after picking up his first passenger.

“I guess he’s running a little late today,” Schwede said. “I usually meet him at the corner.” ... Read EVERY WORD on EVERY PAGE of The Kenmare News by subscribing--online or in print!