School bus drivers to retire after 40 years
With more than 80 years of experience between them and enough miles driven to circle the globe several times over, school bus driver Donna Baughman and dispatcher Sharon Evans are ready for retirement.
They’ve driven school buses longer than some have been alive, proudly displaying the words “Campbell County School District” across the side of their gigantic yellow vehicles while watching multiple family generations step through their folding doors on their way to and from school.
A week before the final day of the Campbell County school year, which would officially be their final day, the breakroom at the school district bus barn was bustling with activity. Smiling passerby’s and coworkers stopped at brown tables and colorful chairs reminiscent of an elementary school classroom to offer their congratulations to Sharon and Donna on their retirement.
“We’re all pretty tight,” Sharon smiled after receiving a large hug from a particularly enthusiastic co-worker, adding that over the 40 years that she and Donna have put in, she feels like they put their best foot forward and tried to make their time count for something.
Donna agreed, adding that during their long careers, they strove to do the best job that they could every day and developed a steadfast friendship along the way. Together, they’ve seen Gillette grow from a sleepy little country town to a bustling city with the third-largest population in the state.
Many things have changed since they started driving school buses with Sharon starting in 1978 and Donna in 1980, both of them getting their start after receiving encouragement from prominent figures in their lives.
For Sharon, that encouragement came from her mother, who drove a school bus in Campbell County shortly after her family moved to Gillette in 1969, and her church pastor who also drove a school bus.
“I thought ‘well momma drove school bus, maybe I can drive school bus too’,” she said.
Donna was turned on to driving a school bus by her landlady, who told her that the school district was hiring bus drivers when she went to pay rent one day and mentioned she was looking for a job.
“I needed to find a job,” she explained. “I had taken a year off work and I was so bored. She said, ‘come ride with me and see if you want to be a school bus driver’.”
The job was certainly lucrative; both of them earned $5 an hour to transport kids to and from school, the equivalent to around $16 an hour today.
Sharon, who had a six-week-old baby when she started, said the schedule was attractive as well, with bus drivers having the option to drive morning and afternoon with plenty of family time during the middle of the day.
But it wasn’t the pay or the schedule that kept them coming back to drive hundreds of miles day after day: it was the kids.
“I love little kids,” Donna said. “They’ll tell you anything, probably some things they shouldn’t, but they love you when they’re little and want you to talk to them.”
Sharon said some of her favorite memories were kids she’d had on her route running up to her at the bus barn yelling “Sharon!” as loud as they could and giving her a big hug.
“It’s wonderful, when these little kindergartners and second graders recognize you,” she said. “They treat me so special that it tugs at my heart.”
The older kids can be a handful at times, Sharon admitted, at times they can call you names that can reduce you to tears.
But they are by no means the majority; there are definitely some fantastic kids, Donna added.
“The kids were my inspiration for getting up in the morning and seeing what they could come up with the next day,” she said, adding that at times it was like she was transporting kids that were 5 years old going on 40, with such wisdom it often blew her away.
Now, with retirement in the books, it time to close one chapter on their lives and begin another.
It’s a bittersweet moment for Sharon, who said she was told by the school district that she had to retire at the end of the school year.
“But I think the time is right,” she said. At first, Sharon was deeply saddened at the prospect of leaving a job that she has grown to love and cherish for nearly half a decade with 20 years of driving a bus under her belt and 20 as a dispatcher. But now, she feels like she finally has the time to return home to Arkansas, where she was originally raised before her family moved to Gillette.
For Donna, retirement means being able to return home outside of Gillette and finish remodeling her house and property.
“I’m so excited,” she smiled.